August 22nd, 2009

How to treat a bartender


Joe McGuirk, one of Boston’s best-known bartenders, told me once, “My real bosses are the customers.” Wow. How refreshing. Joe’s philosophy stands in stark contrast to the bartenders I’ve encountered who have treated their customers like wayward pre-schoolers, annoying trespassers or unruly mobs (not that those characterizations aren’t sometimes true). It made me think: wouldn’t it be great for customers if more bartenders viewed them as employers? And then I thought, wouldn’t it also be great for bartenders if more customers thought of them as employees?

Don’t get the wrong idea. When I invite you, the customer, to view yourself as your bartender’s boss, I’m not talking about the dictatorial, fickle type of boss. I’m talking about the collegial, diplomatic type of boss, the boss who knows that attracting and retaining talent means treating workers fairly and with respect, and rewarding them for doing a good job. Being good to someone to get what you want is not exactly a radical concept, but it’s something the human race has always struggled to get right. And it works really well in bars. Serve your bartender well, and he (or she, as is implied from here on out) will serve you well.

Even before I started blogging about bartenders, I had a good rapport with them. First, I simply like being in bars (if you think about it, not everyone in a bar is psyched to be there), so I’m a pretty content customer to begin with. And I used to be a bartender, so my empathy for these people is pretty strong. But the rapport also stems from my adherence to some basic rules. They’re ridiculously obvious — or so you’d think.

Be considerate. It’s more than being polite with your pleases and thank-yous. In a busy bar, it’s knowing your order and stating it clearly when the bartender gets to you. It’s not saying, “Yo!” or waving a $20 at the bartender to get his attention. It’s being judicious about placing special orders. It’s refraining from, even if you know the bartender and have his cell phone number, texting him your order instead of waiting your turn. It’s asking for a shot and a beer instead of a Ramos Gin Fizz when the crowd is four deep.

Tip well. At least 20 percent of the total. I know, you’re supposed to tip on the pre-tax subtotal, but hey, this is about attracting and retaining talent, right? For me, this rule applies to, like, 99 percent of bar tabs. The other one percent are occasions when the service is scandalously indifferent or hostile, in which case those bastards are only getting 15 percent from me. Then there are those times when you get treated like a dignitary or celebrity, complete with a heartfelt compliment, a free round or two and a surprise appetizer. This is when you tip 25 to 30 percent on the would-be total of your bill. Finally, if you plan on spending the evening in a crowded rock club or similar situation where everyone’s clamoring for drinks and money changes hands every round, tip heavily on the first round. Like, if you order a shot and a beer and it comes to $10, leave $15. I guarantee the bartender will pick you out of the crowd the next time you go to the bar.

Manage your expectations. The odds of getting great drinks and great service at a bar are better now than they’ve been probably since the golden age of cocktails. Hallelujah! But we all realize that most bars still lack one or both of these luxuries. Sometimes we find ourselves at those bars, and that’s when we have to be that flexible type of boss who can make the best of a semi-competent, semi-disgruntled workforce.

It should be pretty obvious what kind of drinks and service you can expect as soon as you walk in the door of an unfamiliar bar. Chain restaurant off a highway? That bartender’s probably been on the job for all of two weeks and will last maybe another two. Wipe the previous customer’s crumbs off the bar yourself, grab your own cocktail napkin, and order a beer in a bottle. Fashionable new lounge with VIP bottle service? Don’t try to order an Aviation. Don’t even order the Melon Basil-Tini off the menu, as it will be served straight-up and lukewarm. Instead, fall back on one of your safety drinks or a glass of champagne, and have fun observing the mating habits of twenty-something trust-funders. Dive bar with surly regulars suspicious of newcomers? The bartender’s probably ornery, too, but just keep quiet, order a shot and a Bud, leave a solid tip on the first round, and he’ll warm up to you.

Of course, even the best bartenders can have a bad shift. If you walk into your fave cocktail bar on a Saturday night and observe what industry folk call a shit show, and if your plans mandate that you stick around, well … just pick your corner and watch the chaos. Waiting 15 minutes for a drink while observing the sweat fly behind the bar is a great way to understand what kind of hustle is required of a top-notch bartender. And if you can manage to be a patient, considerate, big-tipping boss in contrast to the unruly mob, you will reap the rewards.

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9 Responses to “How to treat a bartender”

  1. MC Slim JB

    Fantastic post! I may include a copy of this in the 21st birthday cards of my young relatives.

    A few other useful tips, from Frank Kelly Rich’s indispensable “86 Rules of Boozing” (complete list at ):

    10. Do not make eye contact with the bartender if you do not want a drink.

    28. If you can’t afford to tip, you can’t afford to drink in a bar. Go to the liquor store.

    38. If you are the bar’s sole customer, you are obliged to make small talk with the bartender until he stops acknowledging you. Then you’re off the hook. The same goes for him.

    39. Never tip with coins that have touched you. If your change is $1.50, you can tell the barmaid to keep the change, but once she has handed it to you, you cannot give it back. To a bartender or cocktail waitress, small change has no value.

    40. If you have ever told a bartender, “Hey, it all spends the same,” then you are a cheap ass.

    41. Anyone on stage or behind a bar is fifty percent better looking.

    43. A bar is a college, not a nursery. If you spill a beer, clean it up. If you break a glass, wait for a staff member to clean it up, then blame it on someone else.

    63. If you’re going to hit on a member of the bar staff, make sure you tip well before and after, regardless of her response.

    66. Asking a bartender what beers are on tap when the handles are right in front of you is the equivalent of saying, “I’m an idiot.”

    67. Never ask a bartender “what’s good tonight?” They do not fly in the scotch fresh from the coast every morning.

    68. If there is a line for drinks, get your goddamn drink and step the hell away from the bar.

    72. Never argue your tab at the end of the night. Remember, you’re hammered and they’re sober. It’s akin to a precocious five-year-old arguing the super-string theory with a physicist. 99.9% of the time you’re wrong and either way you’re going to come off as a jackass.

    74. If you hesitate more than three seconds after the bartender looks at you, you do not deserve a drink.

    77. Never preface a conversation with a bartender with “I know this is going to be a hassle, but . . .”

  2. ljclark

    Thanks for the kind words, Slim. Oh, Frank Kelly Rich, we cannot oversing your praises.

  3. MC Slim JB

    Incidentally, I love the photo: the expression on the barman’s face. He appears not to suffer fools gladly. I’m guessing from the Schenley sign that it is probably 1940s vintage.

  4. ljclark

    I know, right? I love the guy sitting just behind the woman. I think he’s … *hiccup* … a regular.

  5. Patricia


  6. dave

    Great post. Seems like common sense, but unfortunately it is not.

    I would ammend “66. Asking a bartender what beers are on tap when the handles are right in front of you is the equivalent of saying, “I’m an idiot.”” To include “or the beer list is on the wall in large, chalk lettering”. If the place only serves Bud/Miller/Coors your an idiot for asking, but some craft brew tap handles make no reference to what they are pouring.

    I wonder what the “regular’s” newspaper headline was? “…S END …”

  7. Patricia

    Headline and “Schenley’s – the best tasting whiskey in ages” sign have me curious. Is Schenley’s still made?

  8. ljclark

    I don’t think so, Patricia. Here’s a bit about it:

  9. Boston, Bartender | The Grumpy Owl

    […] pic nicked from here […]

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