“Does anyone come to New York clean?” Sweetbitter’s 22-year-old narrator asks in the novel’s opening pages. Like countless girls before her, Tess arrives in Manhattan looking not just to find herself but to get lost. Unlike most of them, though, she has no grand plans to conquer fashion or publishing or finance — only an overwhelming urge to trade the nothingness of her nameless hometown for “the one place large enough to hold so much unbridled, unfocused desire.”
Aiming for nothing more than anonymity and an easy paycheck, she walks into what she’s been told is the best restaurant in Manhattan and lands a trainee spot as a bottom-rung back waiter, far removed from the clamoring glamour of the dining room’s front lines. Even that starter position is a stretch; Tess is so green that she’s never tasted an oyster or an heirloom tomato — let alone the Sancerre and cocaine that become a near-nightly ritual once the staff welcomes her into the blurred, blazing hours of their post-shift social lives. But every week she learns a little bit more, and the job becomes her key to the city: a daily master class in sex, drugs, and chanterelles.
An endless roundelay of rivalries and crushes — she is enthralled by both a taciturn tattooed bartender named Jake and his best friend, Simone, a sophisticated older server — propel the story forward, though those intrigues ultimately resonate less than Tess’ sensual awakening to food: creamy, ash-dusted cheeses; anchovies drenched in olive oil; dense, fleshy figs like “a slap from another sun-soaked world.” That’s the book’s true romance — the heady first taste of self-discovery, bitter and salty and sweet. A-