Consuming alcohol at a bar, whether it’s a simple shot-and-beer dive or a high-minded cocktail haven, is an act most people of legal age believe they’ve mastered. But, just like your pronunciation of “Laphroaig” or that Negroni you keep attempting to make at home, there’s always room for improvement. Cultivating a better relationship with the people who are pouring, shaking and stirring your drinks, whether they’re running one of your regular spots or not, is vital to a better bar-going experience.
Some of our most odious barroom behaviors are deliberate, and up to us to correct. Other actionable nightlife faux pas might unfold unconsciously, beyond our drunk-or-sober comprehension. The good news is that becoming a more conscious drinker is easy, so long as you’re willing to accept a little constructive criticism from the pros. Deep breaths. Here are six things to keep in mind:
1. They see you. We all know the feeling — it’s your turn to pick up a round of beers for your buddies, but the bartender just isn’t coming your way, and no amount of unsettling Kenobi-style staring can seem to summon him/her. Relax: They know you’re waiting, even if it doesn’t seem like it. The peripheral capabilities of the bartending species might astound you. “Maybe we get to you more slowly if you act like a dick,” says Colin Shearn, head bartender at Beelman’s Pub in Los Angeles. “But we do see you.” This is where patience pays off. They know you’re there. It’s wise to refrain from screaming, whistling, snapping, banging on the bar or waving fistfuls of money around like a depraved bettor at a turn-of-the-century bare-knuckle prizefight — all moves that basically guarantee slower service. Also, chill with the passive aggression. “Sighing heavily when I run past you doesn’t get you served any faster,” says Drew Stephan, bartender at the Half Moon in New Orleans.
2. Give them something to work with. Many bartenders will tell you they prefer customers to have their requests 100 percent ready the second they’re approached. But the reality is that some of us have burning, booze-centric queries that need to be addressed before we order. This is completely acceptable — it’s all in how, and what, you ask. Questions like “what’s good here?” are the bartending equivalent of a cheesecloth condom — useless. Call out your pet spirit, reference a beer or cocktail you know you like, specify a flavor profile, read the menu before ordering (!)…all of this will help your bartender point/pour you in the right direction. “You don’t have to know exactly what you want, but please provide some guidance,” says Jesse Cornell, head bartender at Philadelphia’s Sbraga. “And don’t just ask what I like. I might like room-temperature vodka. That doesn’t help you.”
3. Pick your moments. If your bartenders are passionate about the craft, they’ll jump at the chance to nerd out and talk shop — sharing tasting notes on the latest local drafts, running down the specs of a house infusion, pouring sample sips of that new oddball liqueur from Eastern Europe. Just keep in mind that there’s a right time to engage in these exchanges — and many very, very wrong times. Don’t name-drop a cocktail with a 25-minute origin story or request a drink you know to be ludicrously labor-intensive “when there’s a grip of tickets up and a bunch of other folks waiting for drinks,” says Nicholas Jarrett of NOLA’s Cure. “Save that for when the bartender has a couple of minutes to give you some one-on-one attention.” Don’t take a rebuke from a bartender the wrong way in these cases. They’re probably just slammed. Unless you’re the guy who orders a Ramos Gin Fizz during the busiest portion of Saturday night. “That’s something to feel guilt about,” says Christian Gaal of Philly’s Emmanuelle. “Full-on crimson eye-watering shame.”
4. Be considerate. Much of this category is just common courtesy. Good manners still get you everywhere. Don’t dramatically rearrange or move seats or stools without asking first. Most bartenders are happy to plug your phone in if you’re in dire need of juice, but don’t expect them to check your iMessages or fantasy football score every five minutes. Extend the same courtesies you’re reserving for the bar staff to the patrons enjoying themselves around you, as they’re trying to have a good time, too. And on the divisive topic of settling a tab — splitting between cards is fine, but a very thin line exists betwixt appropriate and ridiculous, and you know damn well what that line is. “If there’s a really busy room, maybe now isn’t the best time to split a check 11 ways in varying amounts,” says Jarrett.
5. Let them do their job. Just as many servers hate when diners stack up their scraped plates, bartenders dislike when you fiddle with beverage napkins, water glasses or empties — especially if they’re in the act of trying to refill or clear them. Apply classic lapdance logic to your drinking experience — hands off, unless you’re specifically asked to help. They know you’re just trying to help, but this makes it easier for them and easier for you. See the drink onto the napkin or bar top, just like your dad taught you to see a baseball in your mitt. (Unless you had a shitty dad; in which case, sorry.) “I wish people would stop trying to rip drinks out of my hands,” says Death & Co. bartender Al Sotack. “If you’re taking a swipe at it, it makes it close to impossible to put it down without getting a third of $15 drink all over the bar.”
6. Respect the stick. So what’s your real job? It’s the customer question heard, and hated, by service-industry professionals around the world. “For many of us, this is our career — it’s not just an in-the-meantime job,” says Christina Rando, bartender at The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. “I'm not speaking for everyone, but I think it's something to consider." Not everyone loves their work, but those of us who do always appreciate when someone recognizes it. Keeping all of these simple things in mind ensures the true essence of the bar-going experience is allowed to flourish unimpeded. “Drinking in a bar is fun,” says Shearn. “And if you take a second, see where you are and order accordingly, it's even better.”
Read more about drinking better at home in our new column, Easy Drinking: