OC Native Stephanie Danler’s Debut Novel, Sweetbitter, earns Multi-Star Reviews

Photo by Zuzanna Gerulewicz

Raised in Rossmoor, the writer was waiting tables in Manhattan’s West Village when she told a longtime customer, a book editor, about her novel. She was subsequently signed to a high-six-figure, two-book deal. Her first job was as a hostess at Walt’s Wharf in Seal Beach.

“The first time someone slipped me $20 to move them to the top of the (wait) list and I did it, I thought, ‘This is incredible; this is a great job.’ It

was my first restaurant family. I already knew that artists had jobs in restaurants to support themselves and their art. I also knew that financial independence was the key to adulthood. ”

After graduating from Kenyon College in Ohio, Danler moved to New York with the goal of becoming a writer. She got a job at restaurateur Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe and ended up in the hospitality industry for eight more years. Nearing 30, she enrolled in the New School’s fiction-writing MFA program and wrote the first draft of her novel.

“I never stopped writing, but I hadn’t crafted anything long format. I would occasionally think to myself, ‘What’s happening? I moved here to become a writer.’ Then when I was 29, it felt very urgent that I either go back to school or abandon it completely.”

“Sweetbitter” feeds readers’ seemingly insatiable appetite for books about restaurant life, such as Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” sweetbitter-book-cover-danler-2-1024x894
and Eddie Huang’s “Fresh Off the Boat.” But this is about a front-of-the-house “backwaiter,” who buses tables and refills water glasses, and it’s a female coming-of-age novel rather than a male-centric memoir.

It follows Tess, a 22-year-old newcomer from Ohio, who gets a job in a restaurant famous for its impeccable service, falls under the spell of a sophisticated  waiter and a handsome bartender, and savors Prince Edward Island oysters and $26-a-glass Alsace rieslings.

“She has my apartment. She has my walk to the subway. But the plot is very fictional. She does things I could have never done. Tess is a really admirable blend of optimism and recklessness. While I aspire to that, because I think optimism and recklessness are important to bravery, I’ve always been a lot more cautious.”

Danler, 32, moved to Laurel Canyon in February and has been promoting the book.

“At a reading in Seattle, a young woman asked me what advice would I give 22-year-old women. I told her to learn how to say ‘no.’ I think young women have a really hard time saying no, or saying ‘enough’ or ‘I don’t like that.’ I think that we are taught to please. All these things about language are really about boundaries.”

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