Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares is widely regarded as television’s most prominent showcase of terrible restaurants. Taking over the kitchens of failing restaurants that occasionally go viral because they are so terrible, Ramsay clears clumps of mold from disgusting refrigerators in equally squalid kitchens, trains owners to not scream at their customers, and teaches cooks how to make food that is actually edible. Despite all that chaos, the tense drama at these terrible restaurants pales in comparison to the deeply drunken pandemonium that takes place every week on Bravo’s Vanderpump Rules, TV’s actual best-worst reality restaurant show.
For those who are completely lost and have no idea what a Vanderpump is or what her rules may be, here’s the deal: Vanderpump Rules is set at Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Lisa Vanderpump’s two West Hollywood restaurants. SUR, or Sexy Unique Restaurant in Vanderpump parlance, opened first, and Pump Lounge followed shortly thereafter. The show follows an ensemble cast of servers and bartenders who ostensibly work at the restaurant — they’re frequently filmed dropping off plates of goat-cheese balls and glasses of rosé to adoring patrons or shaking cocktails behind the bar — and get together after work to hang out, sleep with each other, take group vacations, drink entirely too much tequila, and, mining that purest of reality-TV gold, fight with each other like absolute maniacs.
There’s really too much drama and intrigue to explain to a newcomer — the upcoming holiday lull is the perfect opportunity to download every season on Amazon and binge-watch — but over seven seasons and more than a hundred episodes, the endlessly dramatic cast of Vanderpump Rules has created a truly perfect television show, centered around what could be the country’s most besides-the-point restaurant. The conceit is, to be sure, well worn. Pretty much every reality series involves conventionally attractive young people fighting with and/or sleeping with each other, but what makes Vanderpump Rules so compelling is that it fully embraces its absurdity, all while being a relatively unflinching look at the experience of working at a restaurant that’s more focused on glitz, glamour, and attracting attention than turning out top-notch cuisine.
The show’s ensemble cast is a cadre of restaurant-industry archetypes that anyone who’s ever carried a tray will recognize. There’s eternal villain and SUR bartender Jax Taylor and his naive former-Hooters-waitress fiance Brittany Cartwright, and Stassi Schroeder, Taylor’s ex, a former SUR waitress, and current podcast host. Also in the ensemble are saucy hostess Lala Kent and dipshit DJ James Kennedy, who can always be counted on for both high drama and comic relief, while bartender Ariana Madix and SUR alum Katie Maloney exist to gossip and fight with their boyfriends. For anyone not deeply devoted to Vanderpump Rules, you likely you have no idea who any of these people are, which means you’re missing out on the most absurd collection of humans to ever fight over hypothetical bowls of pasta or throw drinks in the faces of their cheating ex-boyfriends. It’s true magic.
Even though it’s a soapy reality TV show, Vanderpump Rules is still a window into the experience of working in a restaurant, if a highly glamorized one. Anyone who’s ever pulled shifts at a poorly managed restaurant will tell you that the show’s most over-the-top shenanigans — ranging from drug use to sex behind the bar to two cooks duking it out in the kitchen, and that’s just in my own limited experience working in restaurants — are really not too far off from reality. It’s this closeness from a distance that makes Vanderpump Rules such a pleasure to watch: Knowing that you won’t have to clean up the spilled drinks and contend with the broken relationships afterward is pure comfort.
It’s pretty well established that SUR is a terrible place to dine. In an iconic 2015 essay, Jezebel writer Kara Brown chronicled her trip to the restaurant, and suffice to say, it didn’t go well. Not many of the celebuservers were on hand during Brown’s visit, and even its famous goat cheese balls couldn’t save SUR. “Imagine a fried ball of goat cheese. That’s what they taste like. The fried goat cheese balls are not especially good, but they’re not bad either,” Brown wrote. “They’re just... fried balls of goat cheese.” The goat cheese balls are merely a prop; they provide the perfect backdrop for an endless parade of fights, tears, make-ups, and break-ups.
The current season of Vanderpump Rules, which premiered this month, is set to chronicle Vanderpump’s partnership with self-described mixologist Tom Sandoval and former model Tom Schwartz (“the Toms”), a duo of charming goofballs who have teamed up with Vanderpump to open a new LA cocktail bar called TomTom, which arrived in truly over-the-top fashion in August. It’s arguably a more “serious” establishment than the rest of Vanderpump’s restaurants, with its “craft cocktails” and trend-driven menu of quick bites, but it’s most likely that TomTom will serve as yet another set.
Despite that, even when the cameras aren’t rolling, reality-TV enthusiasts still flock to all of these establishments in the hopes of catching a glimpse of their favorite characters from Vanderpump Rules. SUR has proved popular, slinging signature dishes and cocktails frequently eaten on camera — with orgasmic moans — by Schroeder and other cast members. (Among them is the $14 Pumptini, a mix of vodka, Pavan liqueur, grapefruit, raspberry, and lime, a blushing-pink Lisa Vanderpump signature that is available at both establishments.) With more than 3,000 reviews on Yelp, many describing it as a “must-visit” for the show’s fans, SUR has likely survived thanks to a lacquer of glamour laid on thick by the Bravo cameras.
Considering the chaos that goes on in the dining room and behind the bar, it’s really remarkable that SUR or any of Vanderpump’s establishments have managed to make it for seven seasons. The restaurants have stayed open, the show’s stars now reportedly earn around $15,000 per episode, and millions of viewers tune in each week to figure out what’s going to happen next. It’s a true reality-TV juggernaut, one created by the perfect dramatic storm that only a restaurant setting can provide: a cast of dramatic servers, ever-flowing booze, and the high-stakes stress that comes with navigating interpersonal relationships while serving food and drinks to guests.
Whether or not SUR or Pump Lounge or TomTom is any good is really beside the point. These establishments aren’t primarily intended to function as actual restaurants or bars. But as someone who has worked in the restaurant industry and now writes about it on a daily basis, Vanderpump Rules is like a weighted blanket that soothes away the actual drama in the restaurant world, each episode more absurd than the next. At its core, this is just a show about a restaurant and the people who work there. But it’s also a weekly reassurance that our favorite reality TV stars truly are (sort of) just like us. They’re still working crappy jobs, they occasionally have bad hair days, and, perhaps most relatably, they make plenty of terrible decisions in their personal and professional lives, too.
Amy McCarthy is the editor of Eater Dallas and Eater Houston, and the world’s biggest Vanderpump Rules fan.