February 9th, 2008
At the bar, it’s the little things that count
By MC Slim JB
With this post, drinkboston introduces a new guest contributor, MC Slim JB. MC is a Boston-based writer whose honest, sharp restaurant reviews and food/drinks features have appeared in Boston Magazine, the Boston Phoenix, stuff@night, and the Weekly Dig. MC is also a frequent contributor to the restaurant review website Chowhound.
As a cocktail lover, I often sing the praises of my favorite bartenders’ technical chops: their ability to assemble well-balanced cocktails with speed and precision from the best and freshest ingredients, and to serve them with the right garnish, in the right glass, at the right temperature. But those skills are learnable. With enough training and practice, just about anybody can do those things well. A less transferable skill is the hospitality aspect of bartending, the person behind the stick’s ability to make each customer feel welcome, comfortable and well cared for.
I tried to think of a few small things that my favorite bartenders do that make me happy about my experience in their bars, and — having gotten accustomed to this kind of hospitality — that make me unhappy in places that don’t do them. Here are a few:
1. Acknowledge my presence with a word, a look or a nod when I first walk up to the bar. This way I know, even when it’s crazy-busy, that you’ll eventually get to me. That tiny bit of reassurance that I haven’t been lost in the crowd or deliberately ignored makes a big first impression.
2. Take the time, if you can spare it, to share my love of fine cocktails by talking with me about them. I love to hear more about the drink you’ve made me, the spirits and other ingredients that go into it, interesting variations on it, the lore and history surrounding it, who else makes a great one in town, suggestions for other cocktails you think I might like. I want my bartenders to share my fascination with cocktails and to be scholarly and passionate about their work, not just mechanics on an assembly line. (And for my friends who don’t care about that stuff, make and serve their drinks without fanfare or foofaraw.)
3. If I’m by myself, facilitate some interaction with other patrons. Share a story, talk up the game on the TV, make an introduction. Drinking isn’t much fun as a solitary sport, but not everyone is at ease striking up conversations with strangers, especially when traveling or in an unfamiliar venue. The bartender is in a unique position to bridge those social gaps, to help solo patrons feel a little less lonely and, incidentally, to offload some of the burden of entertaining them and so better tend to other customers.
4. When it’s time for me to go, give me an accurate check and bring my change or credit slip promptly. This is my last impression of your service before I leave a tip. It’s a good step to execute crisply.
There are hundreds of other little things that get bartenders onto my “awesome” list. Although thousands of people pass through his bar, Rob at the B-Side manages to remember my usual, even when I haven’t been by in months. No matter how busy it is at the bar at No. 9 Park, John always shakes my rye flip for five minutes. (Try this with a full shaker sometime to see how much work it is.) At Sasso, Casey invariably finds a way to get a conversation going between me and the rest of the bar. Every time I go by Green Street, Dylan has some innovative new concoction he’s itching to pour for me while expounding on its backstory. Sure, these folks are all great cocktail technicians, but it’s the way they make me feel like an important customer that inspires my loyalty. That’s what makes throngs of devotees follow them wherever they work. Hospitality skills are what separate the merely competent bartenders from the great ones.