Two hours into our dinner at the intimate, candlelit West Village bistro Buvette, Stephanie Danler pushes aside her glass of rosé and plate of steak tartare on toast to write me a reading list, carefully dividing it into fiction, nonfiction, and — her favorite — poetry.
The 32-year-old author and current L.A. resident, whose exquisite debut novel, Sweetbitter — the coming-of-age story of 22-year-old Tess — is out May 24, is brimming with recommendations on a diverse array of subjects, from wine (rosé is “not a weakness, it’s a lifestyle choice”) to keeping your sanity in New York City: “My strategy for living here for 10 years was to leave every three months, even for a weekend,” Danler advises. “I think nature’s important.”
Danler is clearly a person of purposeful choices: Even without dining with her, it’s evident from the crisp, deliberate first lines of Sweetbitter. “You will develop a palate,” the protagonist says, musing to a notion of her younger self. “A palate is a spot on your tongue where you remember. Where you assign words to the textures of taste. Eating becomes a discipline, language-obsessed. You will never simply eat food again.”
After Sweetbitter sold to Knopf for a reported high-six-figure, two-book deal in late 2014, The New York Times wrote a story about how Danler was working as a waitress at Buvette when she wowed a regular customer, Random House editor at large Peter Gethers, with a draft of her novel. It’s a nice story, and Danler is quick to acknowledge that, technically, it’s true. She did wait on Gethers, and he did receive her manuscript. But the overnight-success fairy tale isn’t exactly right. “The story whitewashed a lot of my hard work,” she says. “The first thing I thought was ‘I was the general manager of a f—ing restaurant for seven years!'”
Back in 2006, Danler started as a back waiter at Union Square Cafe, just like Sweetbitter’s earnest young heroine. Eventually she worked her way up to manager at other New York hot spots. Although she moved to the city after college with dreams of becoming a novelist, Danler loved everything about the burgeoning restaurant scene and was completely satisfied with the life she’d built — until she realized those 70-hour workweeks weren’t leaving her much time to write. So she entered the M.F.A. program at Manhattan’s New School, where she focused on nothing but Sweetbitter. And to conserve her energy, she returned to just waiting tables.
After the Times article, Danler received a flurry of messages on social media. “There was a lot of ‘You must be so happy,’ which I’ve come to have a conflicted relationship with,” she says. “I am so happy, and these are huge moments, but your life doesn’t change overnight. People would say, ‘Can you believe it?’ And I would say, ‘I went to graduate school to write. Yes, I can believe that my book’s being published. I took out all these loans!'”
For now, Danler is enjoying the unknown. She’s writing essays and another novel, and catching up with friends — something that nine years of Saturday shifts made it hard to do. Her next move? “I will definitely be involved with a restaurant again,” she says, after greeting an old co-worker who stops by the table. Warm and inviting, Danler is a natural at hospitality. She adds, “I still understand in my bones how this business works.”
This story originally appears in the May 27, 2016 issue of Entertainment Weekly. Pick it up on newsstands now, or subscribe digitally at ew.com/allaccess.