February 9th, 2008

At the bar, it’s the little things that count

BPL bartender

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.

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9 Responses to “At the bar, it’s the little things that count”

  1. Scortch

    Welcome MC Slim JB!

    I’ve enjoyed reading your posts on Chowhound and look forward to seeing your insight here as well! Although I hope this doesn’t mean any sort of decline in Lauren’s posts by any means!

  2. ljclark

    Thanks for welcoming MC, Scortch. I’ll be posting away as usual, no worries.

  3. MC Slim JB

    Thanks for the kind words, Scortch!

    It occurred to me that the notion of Gertsen at No. 9 shaking a flip for five minutes could fall under “technical chops”, but the hospitality aspect is that he doesn’t have to do it for that long, maybe shouldn’t when the bar is slammed, but always does anyway. (Doubtless he has a well-considered rationale, probably something to do with air bubbles and foam structure, for why it needs to be shaken that long, but that attention to detail still makes me feel extra well cared for.)

    My greatest purely technical peeve is unchilled cocktail glasses. That’s a basic, obvious essential in my book, and yet I see it flouted all the time in places that really should know better. Context is important — you probably shouldn’t be ordering a Martini at J. J. Foley’s Cafe in the first place, never mind expecting a chilled glass. It’s the pricey places with long swanky cocktail lists and yards of super-premium spirits that aggravate me when they cut this corner.

  4. jon from NH

    I know this is drinks BOSTON, but anyone have any tips for finding good bartenders in Chicago?

  5. ljclark

    John, I don’t know anything about Chicago bartenders, unfortunately. If I were looking for good Chicago bars, I’d start at Esquire.com’s Best Bars in America: http://www.esquire.com/bestbars/. God, I hope you don’t freeze your ass off out there.

  6. Gareth

    Nice list MC Slim JB…

    Going kind of along the same line as #1, once you are actually seated at the bar and your drink is getting low, being there to take another order quickly. And if the bartender can give a recommendation based off the previous drink (if you decide to switch it up) that makes it even better.

  7. susan

    additionally: a good bartender keeps the bartop shiny and dry with a cloth just for this purpose. he doesn’t serve your beer or cocktail in a warm, wet glass right off the drip rack – you don’t have to be fearful of spotting a lipstick imprint as you are about to take the first sip. he knows the difference between a red/white wine glass, doesn’t insult by using a generic water goblet as an all purpose cocktail glass, does not give change as soggy beer soaked bills, does not keep bar snacks in an open box on the floor within eyeshot of the patrons using an old wooden salad bar as a scoop. does not offer you the half eaten, picked over bowl of bar snacks now crawling with unwashed after work subway strap holding bacteria laden finger licking hand cooties.

    a first rate bartender knows when to shut off an obnoxious drunk even if it is only 6 pm. does not make people who order a “mudslide” feel inferior – after all not everyone is a professional cocktailaholic.

  8. Joaquin


    I just had the pleasure of working a few shifts at the Violet Hour in Chicago’s Wicker Park (kicking off the inaugural swap in the Bartender Exchange Program) and was thrilled to find a passionate crew of hardworking bartenders with incredible talent and warm personalities. Th drink list is extensive, the door guys are polite and the spirits list is top-notch. Check them out and feel free to ask them for more bartender recommendations.

  9. ljclark

    That’s a handy bit of info, Joaquin, thanks!

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