Until recently, my sister was a server at a high-end restaurant on the Upper East Side. On an evening when a new haircut made me feel fancy, I decided to capitalize on my food connection and dine like (family) royalty at The Restaurant.
When I enter, the tag team of overdressed host and under-aged manager greets me. Both click on their smiles and direct me to the Apparel Attendant who offers to take my outer garment. I decline. “I get cold,” I justify.
“Table for one?” I nod.
The host escorts me to a mirror-backed booth in the rear of the dining room. The table is dressed for six. Within minutes, one busboy comes to clear away the extra glassware, silverware, dishes, linens. Someone else brings me a basket of two types of breads and a butter patty squirted out cake-decorating style into a ramekin. Another man fills my crystal water glass from a silver carafe. My server gives me a wine menu and a regular menu.
Everything seems to happen behind a veil of pretension like a ritual dance you engage in when dining in this establishment.
Muted shades of conservative surround me—cream, beige, taupe, with an occasional brown pinstripe on a seat cushion. It’s a mosaic of sounds where the music blends in with the voices, where the forks play with the plates.
The servers wear a traditional uniform of black pants and white button-down shirts. They smile with their teeth, but hold back a sort of putrid green bitterness, anger, frustration, angst. Or something like that.
Tonight I dine as one of them—white linen at the base of it all. They bring me lobster spring rolls and elaborate sushi; the Prosecco was being filled from an open tap. I was getting drunk on my surroundings as I scribbled by the flicker of votive candles.
There were stories everywhere—I was on sensory overload. Delicious ear candy like all the TV stations on at once—drama to the left, soap opera to the right—real life Dirty Sexy Money all around you.
Some slut sits bored, resting her pointy chin on her fist; her perfectly highlighted hair falls like curtains around her face. Pouty, her aura shouts “it’s never enough” but it’s not for lack of trying. Her lips are collagened, her forehead botoxed, her tits perfect. At one point she looks like she may be smiling, but I can’t tell; her emotions are too frozen in plastic.
A group of six. Suits, diamonds, and pashminas … all seemingly fashion forward but soul dead. Two are the life of the party, the remainders become the audience. Shoveling food, drinking, inserting the mandatory chuckle. It’s a record stuck on repeat: chug the wine, take a bite, awkward pause, fake laugh. Pass the wine. Check the wine holder. Pour out the remaining drops. Repeat. Classy folks in a classy joint drinking their classy alcohol and acting like drunken asses.
People who get drunk on wine act like their inebriation is superior to yours. They hold fancier glasses and swirl their drinks around; they like to romance their drug, get to know their elixir before it transforms them.
They order the chocolate fondue for the table. “Oh I can’t, I’m too fat. Oh okay, I’ll have a tiny bite.”
The dessert comes and they devour it. Who will have the last marshmallow? “Oh, I can’t eat another bite. Pass the sherry.”
Cliché: envisioned and enacted all in one take.
One of the waitresses is giving her nightly performance to a group of four fifty-somethings. Her voice gradually gets louder and higher pitched and she slows down, as if she’s speaking to foreigners or preschoolers. Her wine description is like a Saturday Night Live commercial—I can’t tell if she’s showing off or justifying her knowledge. They expect it of her; she hopes she will get rewarded.
“We’ll take the $125 bottle.” They ordered it by price, not by grape.
When the waitress comes back to check in, her voice reaches into another octave. “Is everything tasting delicious over here?” Like puppies slurping their wine up, the foursome nods their heads in unison.
There are rich people of all flavors, shapes, and sizes. Some spread their money like peacock feathers, while others play Monopoly bankers with virtual spreadsheets tallying who owes what. They pay with green paper and colorful plastic; the most elite throw down the black AmEx (minimum annual spend of $250K).
I’m not sure how many couples, besides the one next to me, are here as part of an affair rendezvous. He keeps throwing around the phrases “your husband, can’t, isn’t, won’t …” With each “your husband,” he moves his hand up her thigh. Within minutes his face is buried in her neck, his hand hidden up her skirt.
The Mr. Affair in his early fifties, Miss Affair in her early twenties. He’s a mix of Joeys: Buttafuco and Soprano. He wears a black tracksuit jacket with black baggy pants I’d call trousers. He belongs in Z. Cavariccis. (I should know—I spent my junior and high school years in Staten Island.) A thick leather strapped gold-faced timepiece adorns his arm. Italian footwear cushions his steps like the Natuzzi couch he has at home cushions his ass.
Bimbette Soprano is platinum blonde with a fur-collared Shearling she refused to check. She sits with her arms crossed the entire time eating nothing and pouting with Pellegrino. Clearly she’s pissed off. She finally unfurls her arms just to stroke her mane. She fluffs the teased hair, rolls her eyes, and crosses her arms again. I hear her heavy Brooklyn accent in the most annoyed tone. He slurps down a plate of raw oysters in between spewing bites of bullshit. I could see it was bullshit because of how much he needed to reinforce his point by putting his hands on her shoulder and waving them around in a symphonic nature, the appendages functioning as exclamation points. He gets a second huge plate of rawness and orders his fifth martini. At this point she gives in and orders a nonfat cappuccino.
I overhear a waitress near the computer ordering system talking about a caviar order. I follow her eyes to see what the big spender looks like. It’s a date. He’s trying to impress her apparently. There’s an overpriced bottle of champagne in the silver holder beside their table. They nuzzle their fakeness and sip their amber bubbly waiting for their fish eggs to arrive on ice.
Mr. Trying-to-Impress-His-Date with raw fish eggs and caviar has broken out the iPhone to take her on a personal tour through technological boredom. She pretends she’s interested by tossing her hair back and giggling every few minutes. Oh, the predictable mating habits of the unmarried Manhattan lady. The iPhone light casts a bluish light over her face and conflicts with the yellow candlelight. iPhone + candle = green light over her clueless face.
The waitress is back in her face and removes the half-finished caviar. As a Russian girl who understands the virtue of fish eggs, I was appalled. Here she was—an Upper East Side Miss whose sole goal was to become an Upper East Side Mrs. She sits there with her Jennifer Aniston hair, her French manicured nails, and her fabulous spray tan. Yet she has no clue that she just dismissed deliciousness.
To Mr. Trying-to-Impress-the-Server asks, “Any dessert over here?”
“Do you have sorbet?” he asks. She chimes in, “Is there more than one flavor?”
The server rattles off half a dozen options. They order a lemon sorbet. Adventurous.
“Oh, just one portion for the two of you?” she confirms.
“Oh we couldn’t eat another bite,” the future Mrs. chimes in.
They’re full from their champagne wishes and caviar dreams? She sees a Vera Wang dress in her future, he sees a trophy wife. It’s what we call a win-win situation on the Upper East Side.
A couple whose hands tell me they’re husband and wife are quietly arguing. There is no bodily contact, there are awkward silences, and there are too many glances around the room. They sip their wine quietly and sigh loudly. They’re young, they’re beautiful, and you can see that happy is at the horizon they’ve already passed.
She looks at her Cartier watch and he takes the opportunity to look over his shoulder. She decides it’s time to go. She fixes her lipstick, tucks the hair behind her ears, and carefully adjusts her scarf in this year’s fashion-forward way. She takes off ten feet in front of him. He follows, but not before taking one last look over his shoulder at what he’s missing.
Inside the restaurant they hide from the outside world—and from themselves. Synchronized, they all look at their watches on cue like cuckoos. “What time is it? Oh my, where did the time go? It’s getting late.” It’s like someone pulled the string on their back and they got the 10 p.m. message.
The servers pack up; all dawned in black coats, they gather at the bar. Some make plans to grab a drink or share a cab to Queens. A group of three wait to settle their money and be dismissed. All have a sense of bitterness—at the richer-than-thou attitude that surrounds them. They go back into the world with an anger destined for servers; their fate sealed in the perpetual battle of the server versus the served.