5 Servers on What It’s Really Like to Wait Tables in New York

One thing’s for sure: a lot more is happening than guests realize

01.24.17
Diners eating in the Shoreham Hotel coffee shop in Hartford, Connecticut. (Photo by Eric Bard/Corbis via Getty Images)

After reading Sweetbitter over the holiday break, I became enamored with the unseen inner workings of the New York restaurant world. It’s a space I enter often, but suddenly it dawned on me that I’d never paid much attention to the emotional and practical mechanics that fueled it. You know, short of panicking that my server hated me for hating tomatoes. The food scene in New York has an especially compelling energy to it. I was curious to get the scoop; I had a sneaking suspicion my teenage years as a Chili’s host in the suburbs weren’t quite the same. (Insert ironic thinking emoji.)

So I talked to five women who currently serve in popular New York restaurants — one’s been doing it for 20 years! — to learn about the highs, lows and nitty-gritty between. I also asked them about celeb gossip and tip rules and what we’re all doing wrong, because I’m thirsty like that. They offered me a variety of perspectives, but threaded through was one consistent theme: this gig is not one bit boring. Scroll down to meet them and learn a thing or two about what it’s really like to serve in New York.


Cheryl Johnson
Cheryl has been serving for nine years and currently works at Cookshop in Chelsea. She’s originally from Avalon, CA.

Cheryl-8576

How did you get into the industry?

I grew up in the hospitality industry. My grandfather is a chef, my dad manages country clubs and my mom used to be a karaoke hostess, among other gigs, so I’ve never really known life away from the restaurant world. I started working as a server in college in New Orleans, bartended while I lived in Germany and have worked a couple of restaurant jobs while living in New York. I love the industry, but serving is not what I intend to do for the rest of my life.

What do you love about it?

Restaurants, especially in New York, serve as community gathering places. It’s an incredible privilege to serve and foster relationships in my own neighborhood (Chelsea), which is chock-a-block with artists, gallery owners, fashion designers, media professionals and politicians who all make Cookshop their home away from home.

What’s something few people realize about what it’s like to serve here?

The thing that blew my mind was that a surprising number of people come to the same restaurant every single day. We have some guests that I can set my watch by, and it’s wonderful to have that sort of consistency in my life.

I’ve heard serving in New York referred to as “golden handcuffs” — because it’s hard to leave once you get in — does that feel true for you?

I’ve never heard that! I think, as with any industry, it can be hard to leave once you’re in because of how it shapes your resume and gobbles up your mental energy. That said, though, it also exposes you to a ton of different people and opportunities, and I’ve known a number of servers who have left the industry to work alongside people they served.

What’s an annoying habit of guests that makes you want to bang your head against a wall?

I’ll never understand the “you go first and then I’ll know what to order” thing. I think it comes from a desire to be polite, but it’s always so awkward. I generally wish that guests felt more empowered when making dining choices. Restaurants want to make your experience excellent, so don’t be afraid to ask for what you want!

Tip Q! Do you pay close attention to how much people tip? Is 15% considered low now?

Of course I pay attention! Tips are my livelihood. 20% is considered standard for good service in New York, and if I ever see something below 18% I wonder if something went wrong during the course of the meal. I take a lot of pride in my work and take a low tip very seriously.

I need to know once and for all: Do you eat food off people’s plates?!

Ha! I won’t say it’s never happened, but it’s been a long time. But rest assured: I’ve only seen food eaten off plates that were not touched by a guest’s hands or utensils.


Daryl Nuhn
Daryl has been serving for six years. She currently works at Mimi and Cafe Altro Paradiso. She’s originally from Los Angeles, CA.

How did you get into serving?

I was 23 and working a full-time job as the assistant to Cyndi Lauper’s manager. I thought that having a “big girl” job would give me a sense of purpose or direction, but I was miserable. I had a crush on a girl that worked at The Fat Radish and she asked if I’d be interested in serving there. The manager gave me a chance, overlooking my inexperience. I didn’t even know how to open a bottle of wine properly. I embarrassed myself constantly, but worked fucking hard and was really nice to customers (most of the time). I ended up working with them for five years.

What do you love about it?

Out of nowhere, you find yourself with this unique new family. So much of your time is spent with people that you might not have been friends with outside the constructs of the restaurant. I love hearing everyone’s “escape to New York” story and what their hopes are over family meal. New York would be lonelier without my restaurant family.

What’s something few people realize about what it’s like to serve here?

That it’s tough and requires you to keep your shit together when you’re responsible for 30 hungry strangers and when you’re screamed out of the kitchen by the kind of sexy, kind of crazy chef for asking if they can take the cheese off the salad (answer is no).

Something that few people realize about restaurants in general is the importance of the bussers, server assistants, back waiters, whatever you want to call them. They’re the badass, invisible facilitators that really run the restaurant and are essential to the flow of the night. They’re the hardest working people on the floor, working the longest hours, taking the latest trains home, and often going unacknowledged by customers. Say thank you next time one of them clears your plate.

I’ve heard serving in New York referred to as “golden handcuffs” — because it’s hard to leave once you get in — does that feel true for you?

It’s pretty spot on. If you’re lucky (as I have been), you work in a restaurant where you eat and drink for free (or very cheap), hang out with your best friends, make a shit ton of money and have a schedule that allows you to do as you please.

What’s the weirdest thing anyone’s ever said or done when you were serving?

Weird shit happens all the time, but once I had a guy who spent $500 dollars on dinner and then asked me what I thought he should tip me. I said $500, he snickered a bit, but sure enough filled in $500 dollars. He told me as he was walking out that he’d have given me $1,000.

What’s an annoying habit of guests that makes you want to bang your head against a wall?

Ripping up the receipt into hundreds of tiny pieces and leaving it on the table. WHY?

Putting the ripped pieces of the receipt into the candles. AGAIN, WHY?

When men ask if it’s a “girly” drink. My response is, “drinks here aren’t gender-specific.”

People who say they are ready to order but then take five minutes looking at the menu and just want you to stand by in case they have a question.

Men who think they can touch you because they spent over $100 on a bottle of wine.

What’s something you’re very aware of when you go to a restaurant as a guest that you might not have been prior to serving?

Sometimes it’s hard to go to a restaurant and just be a customer, because I’m always watching service. I try to be kind to new servers, am hyper aware of not lingering at tables well after my meal if the restaurant is busy.

Tip Q! Do you pay close attention to how much people tip? Is 15% considered low now?

15% does feel low. I was taught that 20% and over meant you were doing well, so I get down on myself if I am tipped less than that. Servers in New York make $5.75 an hour, so tips are our livelihood. I understand why people think tipping is ridiculous. Why should they have to supplement my paycheck instead of the company paying us a higher wage? It’s tricky.

Do you have a side-hustle or project you’re pursing on the side?

Working in restaurants has really piqued my interested in wine. I’m helping with the list here at Mimi and working with some friends/mentors who are teaching me how to create a rad wine list. I’m not sure if I’d want to have my own restaurant or bar, but maybe a cozy shop with a few stools where people can read and have a glass.

I need to know once and for all: Do you eat food off people’s plates?!

In a desperate moment, I have. A french fry. In the past. Not my finest moment.


Maria Azuela
Maria has been serving for a year and a half. She’s currently working at Rosie’s in the East Village. She’s originally from Guanajuato, Mexico.

How did you get into serving?

I started as a busser and it never really crossed my mind to become a server. Maybe because of the language barrier or because of my Latino accent, but one day I went to serve water to a table and a guy asked me what my favorite thing on the menu was. Rosie’s serves Mexican food and I am Mexican, born and raised, so I went on a 10-minute rant. By the time the waiter came, I’d already sold the guy half the menu. That’s when people asked me if I was interested in serving and, well, here I am. I don’t intend to stay all my life, but I do expect to be around at least a couple of years.

I’ve heard serving in New York referred to as “golden handcuffs” — because it’s hard to leave once you get in — does that feel true for you?

Oh my god, yes! The money is good, and sometimes it comes easy…and who doesn’t want that?

What’s the weirdest thing anyone’s ever said or done when you were serving?

This couple came in once and told me all about their cat Stella. We had such a good vibe that day that I ended up cat-sitting for them for two weeks while they went to Spain on holiday. They were so nice and the cat was adorable!

Any good celeb stories?!

Jonah Hill came to the restaurant once and I had a little meltdown ’cause I love him! My manager told me to not go to the table or go anywhere near him, so I didn’t, but I ended up bumping into him when he was coming out of the bathroom and verbal vomited that he’s made me laugh to tears during really bad moments. He hugged me. I cried after he left.

What’s something you’re very aware of when you go to a restaurant as a guest that you might not have been prior to serving?

If the server knows about the food. I actually appreciate it more if they tell me they don’t know the answer to my question than if they fake their way through it. I’m also really aware of table maintenance. I hate seeing dirty tables! And even more if it’s mine.

Tip Q! Do you pay close attention to how much people tip? Is 15% considered low now?

Yes and yes. People tip you according to the service they get so you cannot expect a 20% tip if you completely ignored the table. 15% nowadays is kind of low for a good service. It’s not a rule, but New Yorkers know that 18% is the standard.

Do you have a side-hustle or project you’re pursing on the side?

I’m in my final year of school studying criminal justice and after this I’m planning to go to law school. Let’s hope I can make things happen!

I need to know once and for all: Do you eat food off people’s plates?!

Fight club, babe. You never talk about fight club.


Abbie Zuidema
Abbie has been serving for 20 years. She’s currently working at Cherry Point, has previously worked at Aquagrill, DINER, Il Buco and Vinegar Hill House.

How did you get into serving?

The 20-year benchmark snuck up on me. I did not plan to stay this long in service, it’s just evolved. I don’t regret it, not for a minute. I have always loved food (I made a croquembouche when I was 17 and that was a disaster.). When I graduated from high school, I asked for a KitchenAid. Food is transformative. Giving someone delicious things to eat is the best job. It made sense to be in a restaurant — I’m constantly learning, surrounded by smells and tastes. I was also completely terrified of waiting tables before I started. I thought I could never do it. Funny how things turn out.

What do you love about it?

Diner, my first job, was terrifying. I hated it. HATED. I was so nervous when I started that I kept breaking things, the manager kept a list on the wall to keep me accountable. Ha. It took me years to love it. Waiting tables is one of the hardest things to do, your ego is constantly being thrown in your face. I’ve waited on everyone in my life: ex-loves, new loves, parents, friends, people that drive me insane. I’ve also been fortunate enough to be privy to important moments of friends’ lives. Dinner after a marriage proposal, the eve of a baby’s birth, a drink after a breakup. I love feeding people. It has given me so much more than a paycheck.

Diner is my foundation. They call me an OG because I started there in 2001. The people I met there are still in my life, many the most dear, most trusted. The thing about restaurants is that you are privy to your coworkers in ALL their moods. You learn each other’s body language, know each other’s states of mind just by how they walk into a room. Real intimacy. Everyone bands together to make it through brunch with crippling hangovers from the night before (usually spent with each other). You comfort one another when the kitchen yells or a customer makes you cry.

We’ve witnessed each other’s authentic selves. It’s been an incredible life lesson about friendship and letting go of perfectionism. We get through times of chaos on the dining room floor and also in real life. Together. As a team. My restaurant families are what keep me in Brooklyn. This community, this village, it’s priceless.

I’ve heard serving in New York referred to as “golden handcuffs” — because it’s hard to leave once you get in — does that feel true for you?

True. You make money and you can take vacations when you want. Part of why I couldn’t commit to a 9-5 was the limited vacation. Two weeks for the year does not feel reasonable. It’s also great as an artist because you have your days to make work and then wait at night.

What’s the weirdest thing anyone’s ever said or done when you were serving?

Couples having sex in the bathroom, their shadows dancing on the frosted glass and then trying to act casual with their mussed hair and flushed cheeks.

Any good celeb stories?!

I waited on Steve Martin. He was having dinner with a party of eight and I was trying to play it cool. As food started to drop on the table though, something seemed amiss. My stomach dropped when I realized I had forgotten to order Steve Martin’s food!!! He was very gracious as I explained my blunder and promised to make good. The kitchen didn’t fail me (or kill me) and they magically produced the missing dish in record time, saving the day.

The cast from Bored to Death was in the private dining room at Vinegar Hill House. It’s a lovely space, a roaring fire, super cozy, very intimate. Ted Danson popped up from the party, shock of white hair, tall, glasses and had an unusual request. Did we have any scissors? Of course, we hustled to get a pair. He also wanted to know if we had any old credit cards. At the end of dinner, Ted made a big show of cutting up Zach Galifianakis’ credit card. Zach had no idea what was happening — that it wasn’t actually his card. It was hilarious.

What’s something you’re very aware of when you go to a restaurant as a guest that you might not have been prior to serving?

That the staff is probably drinking already.

Tip Q! Do you pay close attention to how much people tip? Is 15% considered low now?

Yes, I pay attention. 20% people, it’s how we make our living. But I don’t let it ruin my night. Some folks just don’t know how to tip. I’d rather my time at work be about connecting with people. It usually evens out, someone under tips and someone over tips. And when I go out, I usually add a little extra, cause it does make a difference.

Do you have a side-hustle or project you’re pursing on the side? What are your sites set on, if so?

I make art. I’m a painter. Food, maps, recipes, my focus is what brings us together. Much of my work is about tapping into the nostalgia of childhood that we can’t describe with language. What we desire, history and experiences. I want to paint watercolor recipes and illustrate for cookbooks, magazines and work with chefs. I love learning and thinking about food. My dream would be to live part-time in NYC and part-time in London (my godson lives there) collaborating on both sides of the pond.

I need to know once and for all: Do you eat food off people’s plates?!

No no no no no. Cooties! I did however sneak risotto at Il Buco. The kitchen would make an order and I would magically make the leftovers disappear right out of the pan by the dishwasher. I couldn’t resist. A couple spoonfuls and it was gone.


Tiffany Soto
Tiffany has been serving for seven years. She’s currently at Coffee Shop in Union Square. She grew up in the Bronx.

How did you get into serving?

When I was 15, my sister’s boyfriend at the time worked at Coffee Shop and told me to apply whenever I needed a job. When I turned 18 and needed money to send myself to school, I walked in and applied. I had an interview with the owner on the spot and she told me to come back to start the next day. That was seven years ago and I’m still there.

What do you love about it?

We’re like a family at Coffee Shop. And the restaurant network around Union Square in particular is super connected. So I know people at all the bars and restaurants around. After so many years, it’s become a source of comfort to have this massive extended New York family.

What’s something few people realize about what it’s like to serve here?

Back in the day, people used to come into restaurants, sit down, order, eat, pay, leave. Now they come in and look at their phones before, between and after all of those steps! It slows down the process so much. Just two or three years ago I could have an order in and food out in 20 minutes. I’ve been so surprised to see how technology has changed the pace of eating. And not for the better, in my experience. People often aren’t even looking at each other and speaking.

I’ve heard serving in New York referred to as “golden handcuffs” — because it’s hard to leave once you get in — does that feel true for you?

It’s definitely true. All of us have gotten so used to the immediacy of the money – you’re just constantly getting cash in hand. It’s so different from waiting two weeks for a paycheck. And I also have control over how much I’m making. I can work doubles when I need to or taper my hours when I want to work less. There is so much control over the cash flow that you can’t get elsewhere. And as a senior server, I make my own schedule.

I work as a part-time designer on the side and I could pursue it full-time, but it’s hard to leave the flexibility of serving.

Any good celeb stories?!

We get a lot of big names at Coffee Shop, but some of my favorites are when Jessica Biel came in and, upon hearing a Justin Timberlake song, called him on speaker and sang along. I also served Lana del Rey when she was going through a breakup at the same time as I was going through a breakup and we bonded over it, which was really nice.

What’s something you’re very aware of when you go to a restaurant as a guest that you might not have been prior to serving?

Picking what I want quickly so they can get the order in ASAP. I’m also always counting how many tables my server has and empathizing accordingly. I’m really aware of how the server seems to be feeling — like if I think they might be getting off soon and are tired, that kind of thing. As a server, 18% is the lowest tip I’d ever give, even to a shitty server.

Tip Q! Do you pay close attention to how much people tip? Is 15% considered low now?

I average around 22% but 20% is considered a great tip. 15% is considered a shitty tip.

I need to know once and for all: Do you eat food off people’s plates?!

In our restaurant I only take your order and drop your drinks, I never touch the food. Ever! That’s a movie myth.

Photos by Patrice Aphrodite Helmar. Follow her on Instagram @patricehelmar.

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