FOR FOUR YEARS, JESSICA WEIGMANN worked as a waiter for Glorious Food—the poshest catering service in New York City, and for most of the time she liked it well enough. She got to observe the haut monde up close, for Glorious Food's glittering client list includes the likes of Barbara Walters, the Trumps and the Tisches, and, formerly, Jacqueline Onassis. Even more significant for Weigmann, a 31-year-old aspiring screenwriter, was the matter of money: "Where else can you find a flexible $17-an-hour job?" she asks.

Gradually, though, Weigmann began to notice that male waiters at Glorious Food were served up the tastiest assignments, like the exclusive at-home dinner parties at which they could earn fat tips of up to $100. She had run smack up against the unwritten law in upper-crust dining: male chefs and male waiters rule the roost. "Most restaurants with high aspirations have only men on the floor," says Ruth Reichl, food critic for The New York Times. "The truth is that restaurants are theater—and very sexist theater."

Weigmann simmered at a 1994 party for Crystal Cruise Lines, where male waiters worked the floor and she and another woman were assigned as bathroom attendants. Later that year, she stewed when the staff of an event at the Morgan Library was men only.

Finally, she stopped working for Glorious Food in disgust last June after Hillary Rodham Clinton was guest of honor at a private Manhattan luncheon and not a single woman waiter was present. "I heard there was a lunch for 30 powerful New York women," Weigmann told a reporter. "It was ironic. Here's this great women's rights advocate, and she's being served by men."

Now Weigmann, with the help of the ACLU, is determined to rewrite the unwritten laws of fine dining service. On Oct. 12 she brought a sex discrimination suit against Glorious Food in a federal court in New York. Until recently, she contends, the company's standard customer contract contained a section asking "Women okay?"

Glorious Food adamantly denies that it discriminates against women. Critics, however, say the owners of the estimated $10 million-a-year business, which employs some 500 part-time waiters and waitresses, insist that if clients want only men to serve, then only men will serve. In fact, upper-crust New Yorkers have emulated Europe's taste in food and service ever since Vanderbilts first trod Fifth Avenue. Caterers such as Glorious Food, which is co-owned by a French chef, may merely perpetuate the mostly male tradition. But socialite Blaine Trump, a Glorious Food client for 10 years, defends the caterers as "very sensitive to equal opportunity." "The thing you ask for is great service and great food," she says. "They've never asked me to select any waiters."

Weigmann has now happily left the world of high-end catering behind. Married two years to Esquire magazine senior editor Mark Warren, 32, she has found a new day job in the sales department of Women Make Movies, a New York City distribution company that specializes in films made by women about women, and continues writing scripts. Still, she'll go on with her legal fight for the sake of future Women Who Wait. "I want to give [caterers] the opportunity, when a hostess asks for just men, to say, 'We'd love to, but we could get our butts sued. We have to give you women,' " Weigmann says with a bright smile. "In a way, I'm helping them do the right thing. I'm doing them a favor."

PATRICK ROGERS
LISA RUSSELL in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Lisa Russell.