Friday, April 29, 2011

Eleven Tips To Keep Your Bartender From Killing You With A Pint Glass

I am lucky enough to have a regular job-type job these days, but I am still working a couple of shifts a week at a very busy bar in Manhattan. People often ask me what's the worst thing about bartending. Is it the late hours? The lack of benefits? The noise level? The total lack of upward mobility?

It is none of those things. Invariably, the worst thing about bartending is dealing with bad customers, and bad customers seem to be a growing segment of the bar patron population. Some bartenders let bad customers get under their skin, and will tell and retell stories of their encounters with said customers; I have learned not to do that. A bartender who dwells on a customer being rude is like a zookeeper dwelling on the monkeys flinging their droppings. If you choose to work with monkeys, you can't really get upset about the things monkeys do; it's the same way with bar customers, who in most cases are like children and animals.

In any case, bad customers can be super annoying, and put us (bartenders) in a mood not unlike that of a preschool teacher at the end of a crazy Friday: harried, tired, ready to snap. So when we get a customer who's considerate and nice and patient, that customer sticks out, and is more likely than not to get a free drink or two before our time together is over.

So here are a few tips on how to be one of those bar customers. I gave myself five minutes to think of everything that gets on my nerves when the bar is stacked up four customers deep and I am operating at top speed, so that when you find yourself on the other end of that situation, you make a friend rather than an enemy. These are in no particular order, and don't really apply to high-end specialty-cocktail kind of places (like where the bartender has a tie tucked between the buttons of his freshly-pressed shirt) or local establishments where voices stay at normal conversation levels and the bartender spends as much time hanging out as he does making drinks. This is for patrons of high-volume bars, clubs and meet markets.

1. Wait your turn, no matter what you're asking for. If I am not looking at you, I am not ready to hear your order. Don't shout it at the side of my head when I'm taking care of someone else; that's like shouting random numbers at someone who's counting. You'll make me forget what I'm already doing and I'll have to go back to the person whose order I'm filling and have them repeat it. That doesn't speed things up, it slows them down. I want to take your money just as much as you want to give it to me, trust me. I see everyone, I know in what order you arrived at the bar, and I will get to you all accordingly.

2. Water counts as a drink. I'm not going to charge you for it, but if I'm slammed and people are waiting, the fact that you "just want a water" doesn't move you to the front of the line. If you want me to put something in a glass, you have to wait your turn like everyone else. (Side note about water: most people who order a glass of water with panic in their eyes and desperation in their voice don't actually drink the water once they get it. Come on, water-orderers: drink the water!)

3. Know what you're ordering before you order. I can't tell you how many times I've had some jackass wave their arms at me like a castaway trying to signal a passing plane while they wait two whole minutes for me to get to them, and then when I take their order they say "Hold on a minute," turn around and start taking the orders of all the people in their group. If you're in such a hurry, maybe while you were waiting you could have used the time to get your ducks in a row for the big moment.  (For bonus points, locate your wallet and confirm that you have the money to pay while you're waiting. Tapping your toe while you wait for an obviously busy bartender and then making them [and the other patrons] wait while you get your act together is poor form.)

4. Don't one-at-a-time me. Ordering a drink, watching me get it, then adding another one, then watching me get it, then adding another drink, then watching me get it, etc. etc., is a massive waste of everyone's time. I can remember and prepare more than one drink at a time, I do this for a living. Tell me all of them up front. (Unless it's more than six drinks. After that, my eyes glaze over.)

5. I am not your dog. Do not wave, whistle, snap your fingers, or shout. Assume that I have been blessed with the gift of sight, and further assume that I am behind this bar in order to earn money. I'm working for tips and I understand perfectly that those tips depend on prompt service. If you're waiting, it's because someone else got here before you. I see you and I'll get there as soon as I can.

6. Your turn does not last forever. You can't order 12 drinks, pay for them, watch me move on to the next person, and then interrupt to order something else like you're still at the front of the line. You have 12 fresh drinks in front of you; this other person has none. I'll come back to you, but handing me money is an internationally understood nonverbal cue to conclude our transaction.

7. Don't ask for a free drink. Not for your birthday, not because you had a bad day, and above all not because you're a female. It's the tackiest thing you can do, especially if I've never seen you before. I don't go all the way till the third date and I don't give away free drinks till the third round. (And then only if you are observant of these guidelines.) If it's your birthday, say so and leave it at that. Everybody knows what that means. (Side note on birthday drinks: the birthday boy or girl gets a free shot, not a free round for their whole party.)

8. Straighten your money out. You would not believe how many people pay with a pile of individually wadded-up singles. Being forced to take the time to flatten and collate them so they'll go in the register makes me wonder if a pint glass would break if I hit it with your head. It never ceases to amaze me how much people who try so hard to let me know they're in a hurry and need what they need RIGHT NOW slow down once it's their turn.

9. Ask a stupid question...  How am I supposed to answer a question like "What do you have?" I'm standing in front of 240 different bottles. Likewise "Do you have cocktails?" The only light in this room is coming through three rows of liquor bottles. Do I have cocktails?!?

10. I'm the bartender, not the concierge. Asking me "Where else is busy tonight?" is like asking a toll booth worker about the traffic up the road. I'm stuck behind this bar. I don't have the faintest idea what's going on anywhere but in this room. I can tell you the names and locations of some other bars I like, no problem. I cannot tell you if they are busy right now, what kind of music they're playing, or the quality of the ladies there.  If you're talking to a bartender on a Tuesday night, you can assume that that bartender spends every Tuesday night behind that bar. That means they never go out on Tuesdays, which means they probably don't know what's going on.

11. Grease the wheels. When you tip the bartender, it's not just for the service you just received; it determines the service you're going to get on the next round. If you stiff me on the first round, you are going to have to wait for the second round -- probably even if no one else is waiting. Also, if something happens -- say you spill your drink, or the busboy clears it while you were outside having a smoke -- I will listen to your story much more charitably if you have been good to me. The best rule of thumb for tipping a bartender is a buck per drink, but if you really want to make a friend, tip big on the first round.


  1. You're turning into the old guy at Club Zam Zam on the Haight!! If you didn't follow that guy's rules he would tell you, "greatest bar in the world is right down the street, buddy!"

  2. Rough nite at work?

  3. I prefer to think of them as guidelines.