Dispatches from the Front of the House

"The restaurant server is never just serving food, they are also: the mediator, the buffer, the northern Italian wine expert, the allergy navigator, the appetite fulfiller, the charismatic leader, the caretaker, the recommender, the check splitter, the mutable chameleon oscillating between being sophisticated and distant and sassy on-demand entertainment."

Independent Producer Sara Brooke Curtis spent six months interviewing restaurant servers in San Francisco. Here, she shares her observations.

"Restaurants - Childs - Childs waitress serving food to family: Celela Bonner, Child's waitress, serving Chattanooga, Tennessee family: (left to right) Mr. R.F. Lowe, Carolyn Joyce Lowe (3 years old), Mrs. Lowe, and Betty Fritz Lowe." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed January 15, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/5e66b3e8-c98c-d471-e040-e00a180654d7
Restaurants – Childs – Childs waitress serving food to family: Celela Bonner, Child’s waitress, serving Chattanooga, Tennessee family: (L–R) Mr. R.F. Lowe, Carolyn Joyce Lowe (3-years-old), Mrs. Lowe, and Betty Fritz Lowe.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. (1935–1945).

Lamb Council ad, circa 1961 Photo credit: Ipernity
Lamb Council ad, c. 1961 (Photo credit: Ipernity)

When I served in restaurants, I was the weirdo who thought that though the tips were a part of the job, the excitement came from the human interaction. I loved studying the dynamics and rituals, attempting to skillfully navigate two-hour relationships with strangers, and writing down my observations at the end of the night. I loved engaging with a job that both rooted me in my senses, and depended on my senses.

For years I worked as a server in San Francisco and I was smitten with the lifestyle that it provided me: working a few nights a week to support the rest of the week’s creative and cultural escapades. It allowed me to live an interesting life in an increasingly expensive city, working alongside some of the smartest and most perceptive people I’ve ever met. I was struck by how much I was learning about people all the time, by watching the way they interacted with their food, their dinner date, and me as their waitress. But, all of these experiences were so fleeting, the restaurant pace so fast, and I wanted to find a way to preserve it in radio. I wanted to illuminate the Front of the House role by gathering their stories and insights, and making something honest, tangible, and shareable out of it.

"Restaurants - Baroness refugee from Germany working as waitress at Five and Ten-Cent Restaurant" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1935 - 1945. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/5e66b3e8-a642-d471-e040-e00a180654d7
“Restaurants – Baroness refugee from Germany working as waitress at Five and Ten-Cent Restaurant” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. (1935–1945).

Servers witness and are folded into so many kinds of vulnerability:

First meals out after a child is born, first date after a painful divorce, first time on an Internet date, and first date period. Lovers cheating on their spouses, and spouses flirting with surly waitresses. Gluten allergies, peanut allergies, cilantro allergies (is that even a real thing?) Fat-phobic diners resisting the gratin during the savory course to save room for the chocolate budino and a latte come desert. The guy that’s at his worst once he finds out the waitress’s name, the lonely lady that decides she’ll have just one more glass of Prosecco to extend and enhance her time flirting with the much younger bartender. The guy who hates his life, that’s just looking to be nurtured and nourished before he goes back to do it again tomorrow. Indulgent, bawdy, and experimental Tuesday night diners, and the predictable and dependable Saturday night at 7 pm sharp double daters. There are regulars with their rhythms and tourists with their Yelp directed expectations.

Waitress in diner, 1981  Item 37921, Pike Place Market Visual Images and Audiotapes (Record Series 1628-02), Seattle Municipal Archives.
Waitress in Diner, 1981, Item 37921, Pike Place Market Visual Images and Audiotapes (Record Series 1628–02), Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives.

The restaurant server is never just serving food, they are also: the mediator, the buffer, the northern Italian wine expert, the allergy navigator, the appetite fulfiller, the charismatic leader, the caretaker, the recommender, the check splitter, the mutable chameleon oscillating between being sophisticated and distant and sassy on-demand entertainment. They are these uniquely qualified, professionally undervalued culture critics, bearing witness to the crazy and beautiful ways we act at the table. Servers are some of the best storytellers I know, and I’m thrilled that these wonderfully insightful, super funny, and dynamic voices now have a home on the radio.

I’m so grateful for all the people I interviewed for this piece: Anisse Gross, Jay Beaman, Keri Fishman, Dylan Dasher, Kristin Sobditch, Heather Mack, Jeanine Anderson, Ned Buskirk, Amelia Hobbs, and Vanessa Escovar.

The music you hear is as follows: Charley’s Quote by Cal Tjader Trio, Shake it and Break it by Lanin’s Southern Serenaders, Dinah by Django Reinhardt, Valse A Bambulo by Gaucho, A Death of a Revolution by Quantic, White Clouds (Day’s Rhodes More Traveled edit) by HF and One Day-Instrumental by U.G.K.

This piece was supported by the 11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.