Officially, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s one-hour return to her bartending days was about a push to raise pay for tipped-wage workers.
But as she fielded orders from behind the bar of a restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens, other concerns intruded. One woman handed her a card, thanking her for her support of the Muslim community and of Representative Ilhan Omar, the Muslim congresswoman from Minnesota. Several people asked for selfies. All around, television cameras pressed in, as Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s team tried fruitlessly to keep them back.
The frenzy on Friday at the restaurant, the Queensboro, embodied the perks and challenges of being Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, a 29-year-old political newcomer who overnight became one of the most recognizable politicians in the country. Her origin story — from bartender to underdog congressional candidate to face of the progressive left — is so well known that it has become a symbol of the restless, unpredictable mood of national politics.
The result is that her every move — even the otherwise routine sight of an elected official championing a favored cause — is breathlessly broadcast, followed and scrutinized, with passers-by pressed against the window and conservative blogs pre-emptively declaring it a flop.
She can bring attention to an issue simply by mentioning it on Twitter or, as she did on Friday, showing up for an hour in her district; her fame can also distract, turning every appearance into a circus. When Ms. Ocasio-Cortez shook a cocktail, the room erupted in cheers.
“I don’t care about this,” one reporter was overheard grumbling when it became clear Ms. Ocasio-Cortez would not take questions. “Tell me about you and Ted Cruz” — a reference to an agreement the two politicians made on Twitter to work on new lobbying restrictions for former lawmakers.
In addition to showing that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s fame had not waned since her stunning upset last summer over the incumbent, Joseph Crowley, in the Democratic primary, the event Friday also displayed the political strengths that had helped her achieve that fame.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez had announced her return to the bar three days earlier on Twitter, where she has more than 4 million followers. She did so in her typically conversational tone — with a winking emoji and a jab at “silver-spoon classists” and “milk drinkers” — then appended several posts about her favorite brunch cocktail and her opposition to sour mix.
Her entire appearance was carefully controlled, with most of the crowd made up of nail salon and restaurant workers wearing matching T-shirts and demanding “one fair wage” — the name of the campaign by Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a group that is fighting to raise the wage for tipped workers to the full minimum wage.
The federal minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 an hour; only seven states require tipped workers to be paid the same as other workers. Tipped workers are predominantly women. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has co-sponsored a bill to double the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024. New York State is also weighing a proposal to bring the tipped wage in line with the minimum one.
In individual conversations with diners as well as remarks to the whole room, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez consistently emphasized how her personal biography had informed her political one — a winning tactic from the campaign trail. (Even President Trump has invoked her back story, dismissing her as a “young bartender”). She shared stories of experiencing sexual harassment and economic uncertainty as a bartender reliant on tips.
“It is so real, the amount of exploitation and harassment and labor violations that you will endure,” she said.
The event was tightly choreographed to keep attention on the issue at hand. Before Ms. Ocasio-Cortez spoke, several workers shared their stories: Glenda Sefla, a nail salon worker, described working in poorly ventilated spaces, with no lunch hours and no certainty about how much money she would earn each week. Aesha Polanco, a massage therapist and restaurant server, recounted being shown lewd photos by customers and tolerating it for the sake of tips.
But it was undeniable that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was the main draw, so much so that as she left the restaurant through a back door, the crowd chanted “Alexandria! Alexandria!” before turning to “One fair wage!”
“Someone that went through the things we’re currently going through also has a seat at the table — that’s amazing,” Portia Green, 32, a bartender from Harlem, said afterward.
“I fangirled over her,” said Mary Catherine Ford, 42, from Astoria, who said she had snagged a seat because her friend was a regular and had been alerted to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s visit by the owner.
As with most everything Ms. Ocasio-Cortez does, even the smallest details of her bartending stint invited an obsessive level of scrutiny and analysis. What was the symbolism of her choice of venue, a hip, newly opened spot with exposed wood beams and dangling pendant lighting? Was it a wink, some wondered, to the fact that Mr. Crowley had held his election night party there, dedicating a song to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez when she won? Did it unintentionally highlight that she had defeated Mr. Crowley by dominating gentrifying areas of Queens, despite losing some less white neighborhoods?
Some conservatives pointed out online that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s former employers had recently closed their flagship restaurant, citing rising costs including the increased minimum wage. (Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Center United, said states that had abolished the tipped wage had flourishing restaurant industries.)
But that punditry was far from the minds of the carefully curated audience at the restaurant on Friday. As they finished their cocktails and pizzas, and as the crowd thinned after Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s departure, they were still basking in the afterglow of their encounter.
“She’s a frickin’ rock star,” Ms. Ford said.