Yes, people, National Waiters & Waitresses Day is a real thing. NWWD (I just invented this abbreviation) is May 21, a day to eat out and tip generously as we pay a little extra attention to the hard-working, often underpaid folks who serve us in restaurants. To celebrate, we’re serving up a a six-course meal of waitstaff-centric books, movies and more.
One of the greatest TV comedies of all time, Cheers (1982–1993), focuses on the employees and patrons of a Boston bar. Here we encounter two common waitress tropes: Diane, played by Shelley Long, is highly educated and thinks waitressing is beneath her, but she takes the gig in a moment of desperation after being jilted by her fiancée. Then there’s Rhea Perlman’s Carla, the wisecracking, hardened “career” waitress who becomes Diane’s comic foil. The first couple of seasons are like a sitcom writing masterclass.
Waiting tables is a common job for college students or other young adults—a thing to do while waiting (sometimes in vain) to do something else. Stephanie Danler wrote Sweetbitter during grad school while she worked at NYC’s Union Square Café, and the novel takes an unflinching look at the glitzy but grueling world of an upscale Manhattan eatery. Based partly on the author’s real-life experiences, the book was a bestseller and literary sensation upon its 2016 publication. Danler told Vanity Fair: “I’ve seen so many women move to New York City, think that they’re going to get a temporary job in the restaurant industry, and then get sucked into that world.” Sweetbitter will also become a TV series on Starz!, premiering May 6.
If “literary sensation” doesn’t whet your appetite, check out this 2005 gross-out comedy from writer-director Rob McKittrick, who wrote it while, you guessed it, working as a waiter. In Waiting… (the ellipsis is part of the title, thank you very much), the servers at the chain restaurant Shenaniganz pass the time with pranks and mischief befitting the eatery’s name—sometimes at the expense of customers they don’t like. This one’s crude, non-PC and, as my mom would say, “it’s not gonna win any Oscars,” but if you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you might relate to it.
The Best of The Waitresses
The Waitresses aren’t exactly a one-hit wonder. They’re more like a one-hit-plus-one-other-song-you-might-know-plus-a-TV-theme-song wonder. The post-punk band from Akron, Ohio charted in the early ‘80s with the memorable “I Know What Boys Like,” and their 1981 tune “Christmas Wrapping” sits firmly in the small but vital canon of 80s New-Wave Holiday songs.
They also did the theme for the TV series Square Pegs. The band was built around the catchy songwriting of Chris Butler, who convinced his friend Patty Donahue to leave her real waitress job behind to be the lead singer.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
Ellen Burstyn won the best actress Oscar for the title role in this 1974 film directed by a young Martin Scorsese. In the film we follow Alice Hyatt and son Tommy, who move from New Mexico to Arizona in search of a new life after the death of Alice’s husband, who was a jerk anyway. An aspiring singer, Alice finds work as a waitress at Mel’s diner, where Flo (a wisecracker) and Vera (not so wise) are fellow servers. If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because this film was the inspiration for the CBS sitcom Alice. Vic Tayback starred as Mel in both the movie and the series. Don’t let the sitcom connection put you off; this film has a realistic tone typical of 1970s “New Hollywood” fare. Did we mention Scorsese directed it? Kris Kristofferson and Harvey Keitel also appear.
In this 2007 romantic comedy, Keri Russell stars as Jenna, a diner waitress who finds herself pregnant and stuck in an abusive, unhappy marriage.
(What is it with waitresses and no-good husbands?) She enters a pie-baking contest, which she sees as her chance at a new life. The film, which also features Andy Griffith in one of his last roles, was adapted into a stage musical with songs written by Sara Bareilles. Bareilles released What’s Inside, an album of songs from the show, and there’s also an original Broadway cast recording.