Confessions of a Restaurant Hostess
Barcelona Wine Bar always had a two-and-a-half to three-hour wait list. We maintained it with paper and No. 2 pencil. When the line got that long I would tell hopeful diners honestly how many names were ahead of them but anything less than that — 90 minutes, 45 — I’d qualify per our manager’s direction as “a drink, a drink and a half.” Washington DC is a town of lawyers but it wasn’t my job to be precise. It was my job to help people feel welcome and settle in by the bar.
Smiling and greeting people is not as easy a task as it may seem. When you work five nights a week, you want to wear something different every time. They had me at $20 an hour and I spent all of that and then some on various form-fitting maxi dresses from Nordstrom Rack in Pentagon City. I wasn’t instructed to wear “flare” à la Office Space per se but something close to it. Accessories were encouraged. The GM noticed I wore a lot of black and wondered if we could switch it up and I didn’t mind. I wanted to be up front and center, to feel pretty, to be noticed. The alternative was what the servers wore: crisp white pressed button down shirts and jeans, black shoes.
I lasted all of two days as a server; I’m good at a lot of things but not efficient. E.g. If someone asked for a glass of water I’d go and fetch the water but forget they also wanted bread so I’d put down the water, turn around and make a second trip back to the kitchen for bread. It’s the regional manager who first identified me as a hostess. It meant I wouldn’t have to wear jeans and flat black shoes. I didn't have to be efficient. The job required me to simply look pretty and calm down hangry and maybe even make people laugh. To set the tone for this new location that had just opened one week prior. I couldn’t even technically quote wait times lest I be held to my word.
In between waiting for busboys to clear tables I’d spend my time getting hit on by men. We didn’t use QR codes or text back then. I had to write down each guest’s name longhand alongside a coded description of their outfit. When it came time to seat “Sam, Party of 6” I had to reference my notes: lanky, glasses, gingham shirt. Then physically wade my way through the crowded bar till I found him. (The bane of my existence were sparse notes taken by somebody else: “Sarah, pants.”)
I loved weaving my way through that bar. I liked the bartenders’ whistling when I showed up in a form-fitting wrap dress and heels. I got a kick out of the Argentinian lawyer who told me my presence was like having the Eiffel Tower in Washington DC, and even the drunk who came in around Christmas and insisted I was Top 10 in the country, would even be Top 5 in San Diego, and isn’t that saying something. I often think about the man who brought me back Maxime’s chocolates from Paris or the older Moroccan gentleman who, when he knew I had a long ride home, surprised me with a takeout dinner from Le Dip. The manager down the street who welcomed me at his own bar after closing with whatever was left in the kitchen and the last drops of his best bottle of wine. The ICE Chief of Staff who insisted if the government entrusted him with its secrets, so could I. Or the diplomat who let me stay over on a night the roads were icy. How he opened his front door in boxers and Invisalign and an oversized t-shirt, looking both imposing and somewhat unsure, and glanced quickly back toward his own bedroom before graciously leading me to a guest room down the hall.
The men I met in that bar were more or less successful talking to the women around them. But I liked that when they weren’t, they felt they could wander over to the hostess stand and talk to me. My life back then felt something like a gentler version of a Dolly Parton song: I provided a safe space to the men of Washington and they reciprocated in kind.
Barcelona Wine Bar is still saved as “work” in the Uber app on my phone. But it was a bar, not an office.
I’m not sure I'd have my 20s any other way.
There was a man who offered me a ride to work in the pouring rain one evening when I couldn’t find a cab. I was standing on the corner of Columbia Pike attempting to flag one down in a thin raincoat and a borrowed Louis Vuitton umbrella. The sheets of rain were really so thick you could hardly see. He pulled up in a BMW and asked if he could help me get wherever I was going. I know the more prudent thing to do would have been not to accept but for whatever reason I felt more worried about being late for work — it was the first night I’d been scheduled to cocktail — than I did about being murdered. I would put a PSA here to younger women to do as I say, and most definitely not as I do, and yet I still don’t regret that I accepted and got in. I got a kick out of how foolish he looked coming back into the bar an hour later. He’d sworn up and down in the car that 14th Street was on his way to work and he wouldn’t even ask for my number. Instead, he found himself unexpectedly surrounded by friends who asked him what had brought him in, and how was his wife?
When he walked past the hostess stand on his way to the bathroom and asked me to join him for a three-day weekend at a place of my choosing, because I needed a vacation, didn’t I, I thought on my feet and told him it was a bad idea. That I’m a hopeless romantic and if I went away with him I might fall in love. I still think about the way he looked taken aback. How he came back from the bathroom after a few minutes of focused self-reflection and called my bluff. Replying, earnestly:
‘Alicia, I’m not that attractive, you’d be fine.’
Further Reading: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler.
Favorite Quote: “It’s brave if you make it, foolish if you fail.”