Being a waitress in a major city is like being an urban anthropologist. Every table I serve, I learn more about the urban human life and behavior. I’ve worked in restaurants in NYC and LA. I currently work at a decently fancy restaurant in LA. I’ve held various positions: host, back-server, busser, barista, server. And worked at various places: cafes, dinner-only restaurants, a bakery. I want to share some of the things I’ve learned from all of these experiences. Sometimes my observations serve as evidence for a point that is so obvious it feels silly to make it in the first place. However, it’s always easiest to overlook the most obvious lessons in life. May it serve you in the journey of self-reflection in the way it has done for me.
When my manager introduces a new wine or dish, she already knows whether it will sell or not. The funkier the wine, the harder it is to pronounce the ingredients in the dish, the less likely they will sell. “Well, this one should be simple since branzinos sell themselves.” So do glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon. And anything fried. And vodka cocktails. There is a pattern to how people order at any type of restaurant. They steer away from the unknown, things they have never heard of, experimental dishes, and play it safe with the familiar, what they have liked since childhood, what they make at home, what the latest trend in food is, or what they get every time at that specific spot. Everyone looks for lemonade, a staple of memories from childhood. At a hangout-style spot, they order what they could make at home because they seek that level of comfort. Even when people venture out to risky, unknown territory to try the latest trend in food, it serves them the simple purpose of wanting to be part of something. And guests become regulars, and return again and again to feel a sense of belonging in a community. People want food that evokes certain emotions: nostalgia, comfort, and belonging, so their risk-averse choices in restaurants and what they eat reflect the need to satisfy these basic human emotional needs.
Some things never get old. When I worked at cafe-style daytime restaurants, people came in constantly searching for Arnold Palmers and lemonade, even though they were not on the menu. At first, I was caught off guard. It has been many years since those drinks used to be a part of my life. There was once a time when I used to set up lemonade stands at the playground, and buy cans of giant Arizona Arnold Palmers after school, and then life moved on, cultures and trends changed, and soon, I began sipping matcha lattes and celery juice. But before cold brew and kombucha, there were Arnold Palmers and lemonade. And everyone grew up with lemonade. This is collective memory. Everyone must associate it, even if they are not consciously thinking of it, with their childhood. Each of these cafes I worked at would offer quality teas, sparkling drinks, and fresh-pressed juices, but none of these beverages offer the positive emotions from years of memories, the way Arnold Palmer or lemonade does.
Food is paired with memories. When I am sick or sad, I can consume a giant bowl of kimchi, the main staple of my childhood. I venture off into Koreatown when I miss my mom, and as soon as I start to eat my boiling hot bowl soondae gukbap or samgyetang, I feel safe and cared for. I met my best friend of 17 years when I first immigrated to America. I went to her house for playdates when I barely spoke English and we would share bowls of Nilla wafers, Fig Newtons, and Kraft Mac ’n’ cheese. To this day, I can easily scarf down a whole box of Kraft by myself because the taste of it brings me back to building my first close connection and feeling accepted in America. Something so artificial can taste so rich because of the depth of memories attached to it. When guests try the fusion menu at my current workplace, they love when the food reminds them of their upbringing. “This really brings me back to my grandmother’s cooking.” This is always considered a compliment because anything that can take people back to their childhood is moving. Nostalgia is powerful; everyone wants to be brought to a simpler or joyful time in the past. This longing is so pervasive that it often dictates our cravings to find what can give the same comfort as mom’s home cooking.
And if it’s not mom’s home cooking, people will find the closest thing to the menu of their own home. When I worked at three different brunch spots, the most popular plate was always two eggs with toast. People would wait over 45 minutes in the sun for their table and then order what they can make at home. Again, I could not understand it. Why would you wait so long to pay for something you have at home? The chef would experiment with new dishes and bring them out as specials but only the fried egg sandwich made it on the menu permanently. If the special was not something guests were used to, I saw them zone out during my description of it; they already knew what they wanted. Brunch is the time to cure hangovers, catch up with friends, and sit in beautifully lit space. In other words, it’s a hangout. It took me a long time to realize that when people are going out to eat, they are not really going out to eat. They are going out to hang out and catch up, and eating happens to be the common activity everyone is down for. If the purpose is to hang out, people want to be comfortable and feel at home. And the food selection must reflect that: a cup of joe, orange juice, pancakes and french toast with syrup, eggs, bacon, potatoes.
There are all kinds of hangout spots: diners, cafes, burger joints, and the list goes on. But the menus at all of these places are more similar than not. They are full of staples: mac ’n’ cheese, pancakes, fried egg sandwich, french fries, burgers, salmon. All of these things are approachable. If people want to let their guard down and enjoy themselves, the dishes must trigger the right feelings to let them feel comfortable. The restaurants that offer the hangout spaces care about the atmosphere because they know it is not all about the food; everything from the seats to the music must make people want to stay and come back. Out of all the places people will eat at in their lifetime, the most frequently visited kitchen will be their own. And they get accustomed to the ways they curate their comfort in their home. So when they leave their haven behind, they will be drawn to the places that can offer them a similar feeling, eggs their way, and bacon cooked to a crisp.
Once in a while, people will leave their hangout spots with staple comfort food behind, and venture out to try the latest trend. It can be a hole in the wall with a long line, or a fancy restaurant with sporadically available reservations. They take the risk into the unknown but they do so with limitations. They choose the hot, new trends that have the stamp of approval from reviewers, foodies, and long lines. It is actually the least risky decision of all because it is simply following what everyone else is doing. Reservations are hard to come by at the restaurant I work at now. The longer they waited for their reservation, the further they drove to get to the restaurant, the more people will ask to know what everyone else orders. The more they invested into the experience, the more they want to ensure making all the right choices. Or they come in knowing the answer already. They are not there to try the eccentric specials; they came to know what the hype is about. If people choose comfort food to be brought back to their childhood or home, they choose trendy food to feel included and fit in.
Any long line sparks the curiosity of a passerby. Everyone wants to know what the cool kids are up to. When something suddenly gets one superb write-up, or a viral photo spreads, the hype starts to build. The hype creates a facade of exclusivity and mystery that make it all the more appealing. No one likes to feel left out, so people want in on the trend. Once hype starts to build, it can instantly turn into a cult following: avocado toast, ramen burger, Popeyes fried chicken sandwiches. At a certain point, the hype goes so far that the quality of the product cannot possibly match people’s expectations. The value of the product gets highly inflated solely because of everyone flocking to it. But it only reaches this level because of the human need to want to be a part of something. It is a natural instinct to want to know where the herd is headed, which is what motivates people to risk trying something new. But once they find the right spot that offers them the community they long for, their loyalty does not waver.
Beloved neighborhood spots survive with the support of regulars. There is a sense of community within the restaurant. The waiter knows their faces, their orders and what’s the latest in their lives. My co-worker previously worked at a restaurant that had a weekly changing menu. He mostly served regulars who would visit frequently to keep trying the new creations. He knew who did not eat cilantro, who hated lamb, and who drank their coffee black. The staff became so close to the guests that they invited each other to weddings and game nights in their homes. After our shifts, my co-workers and I go to a nearby spot to get some late-night grub and a nightcap. Last time I went, the chef came out to share what’s on the secret menu, what’s coming up on the menu, and some complementary sake bombs. Regulars always receive special treatment, and people love feeling like they are a part of a community. If people visiting trendy places represents a high school kid trying to fit in, becoming a regular at a place is that high school kid going off to college and finding her niche. This fundamental need to belong exists in every person, as demonstrated by the loyalty of regulars. Regulars can go anywhere else, or just stay home, but they return to those who know them best. Going elsewhere means leaving behind that community they are a part of. It is hard to break the attachment when a place makes them feel like they belong.
My first two jobs in Los Angeles were my first communities in the scary, new, expansive city. One was a daytime breakfast/lunch cafe, and the other was a Vietnamese place. Both of them were near where I lived, so by working at these places, I got to know my own neighborhood. My co-workers and regulars were my first friends and family in the city. I would say hi to my regulars at bars during happy hour and at Trader Joe’s while grocery shopping. My co-workers explained why there were coyotes on my street, where to find the best tacos, and why I should appreciate the rare rainy days. When I quit working at these places, I missed giving life updates to the head barista, and going out for drinks with co-workers after work. So I became a regular, in order to hang on to the community I had been a part of.
Regulars not only always come back, but they also always order the same thing. When I was a barista, I could start making drinks as soon as I saw which regular walked through the doors. Gail would get an iced latte with almond milk. Anthony would get a hot americano, easy water. My first restaurant job was at my best friend’s family restaurant in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. This neighborhood is residential, so it would always be the same families coming in. Everyone had their set order. The kid would get the pasta with butter, the dad would get a Peroni and the Diavola pizza, the mom would get the cavatelli with broccoli. At the Vietnamese place, it was the same way. The owner of the restaurant across the street would come in weekly and get the Shaken Beef, a Tiger beer, and hot sake. During every break, I ordered a vegetarian pho, no carrots, extra ginger. This became my first comfort food in LA; after a while, it was no longer about the taste but the security that came with joining this new family. What they order becomes a part of their identity in the small community. With every visit, they order what made them a regular in the first place, and are reminded of the sense of belonging in the community.
Eating is about much more than finding something that tastes good. There is an emotional connection people have with food. Some flavors are associated with memories, and every time people have it, they can momentarily bring the past to the present. Some things they could just as easily make at home, but they get it anyways because it allows them to feel as comfortable as they do at home. When people go out to explore the hot new trend, they cannot help but want to follow the giant herd doing the same. Regulars make their favorite spots a second home, a new community where they feel a sense of belonging. Memories of childhood, feeling at home, fitting in and belonging all bring a sense of security and comfort. Perhaps that is because people’s relationship with food begins in the family. Food and the act of eating have been about tradition, connection, and nourishment. People do not step into restaurants to seek risky adventure; they come to find what food has always been for them — feeling cared for.