Bar Etiquette: The Polite Boozehound’s Guide

Working in the bar industry for the past eight years has given me many things. Among them, it’s provided me with the most enviable people-watching experiences, plenty of ruined manicures, and a whole new respect for a hard day’s (and night’s) work. A quick review of my CV would tell you that I’ve worked in several different states and even a European country, but you’d be surprised at how common misconceptions about bar etiquette — and even bartenders themselves — exist no matter where I go. 

Because the season of happy hours is upon us — and because I want to believe that most of my run-ins with rudeness are due to genuine lack of knowledge — it’s time to talk about how we handle the whats, whys, whos behind the booze.

1

I cannot express how important it is to establish the right tone with your bartender. “Give me” or “let me get” are not the nicest ways of ordering. “Could I (please) have…?” or “I think I’ll try…” are fine. Even just saying “Stella, please” is cool. Don’t get all Hollywood about it. Can’t get the bartender’s attention? It’s still not okay to wave a glass in his/her face or shout. Snapping fingers is also not encouraged. We’re going to be cool if you’re going to be.

2

Bartenders are happy to make suggestions and modifications, but so often we see customers who ask for a specialty cocktail at a restaurant, and then expect it to be everywhere they go. If you really enjoy a drink at an establishment, ask the bartender what’s in it so that you can request it from another place. Asking me for a “Flirtini” tells me little else except that perhaps you don’t want to taste any liquor in that drink. 

Alternatively, when you say, “I’ll have a vodka soda, but make it strong,” what you’re really implying is that your bartender is in the business of serving up half-baked concoctions in the name of stiffing you, a total stranger from whom they are trying to garner both tips and loyalty.

And to dismiss a myth about the potency of drinks, there’s no such thing as “watering down” a drink. Bartenders have neither the time nor the inclination to replace portions of liquor bottles with water, and anyone who’s changed a keg will say the same when it comes to beer lines. If you’re truly concerned that you won’t receive enough alcohol in the standard drink, take your liquor straight up like a boss.

3

I understand the idea of tipping $1 per drink, especially when the extent of your order is to pop open a bottle of beer. But, when you’re ordering a round of cocktails and mixed drinks for your group of friends and you manage to rack up a $50 tab, the $1 tip no longer cuts it. And if you do tip that way, you can expect to be served last (if at all). Oh, and if you decided to stiff us, you can expect that no bartender will serve you for the remainder of the night. Your face will forever be imprinted as “that girl who didn’t tip,” and word travels fast. 

The reality of the situation is that bartenders make about $3 an hour (depending on what state you’re in) — a wage we never even see because it goes to cover our taxes. We rely on the societal understanding that we provide a tipped service of 18-20%, so when you decide not to partake in said understanding, you’re causing all kinds of trouble.

An extra thing to keep in mind is the increased presence of discounts and vouchers available online. If you use a Groupon or some other form of discount voucher during your visit, tip on the original amount, because that’s the amount of service you received. A special note for groups: If you’re paying in cash and your friends are using credit cards, the bartender is never going to see that cash tip. The reason for this is the way the computers work at most bars: All cash is applied to the principal amount, so you may be stiffing your server without even knowing it.

4

Don’t rearrange the furniture. Don’t throw your coats and bags over the bar. Don’t ask me to charge your phone. If you see an available plug, just ask if you can use it first. With the delicate TV and sound systems in many bars nowadays, it’s easy to blow a fuse. Don’t help yourself to the olives and cherries either. That’s just gross.

5

Buyback and laws about ordering doubles vary from state to state, so make sure you know what’s kosher before asking for one. Buybacks, in general, are done under the table, so don’t start whooping if you receive a free drink. This should go without saying, but you should also never ask for a free drink. Yes, even on your birthday.

6

Bartenders aren’t dumb. Most of us are in it for the extra money, and most of us are degree-holding, completely capable adults. Sometimes, customers will give me their business card and say, “Hey, if you ever wanna be my secretary, shoot me an email.” To suggest that I would rather leave a job that allows me to be financially independent so I can work for the likes of you, or to even think that I’m some damsel in distress, you’re out of your mind. Of course, if you’re offering me the chance to be the red-carpet date for RyGos, then that’s a different story. 

I also understand that you’re out to have a good time, and sometimes that fun needs to be documented on Facebook or Instagram. But, in the interest of time and sanity, you should refrain from asking me to take a picture of you and your girlfriends taking a shot together. That’s really a job for the group of cute guys standing next to you.

Additionally, far too often it seems my patrons believe that because I work at a bar that I am both uneducated and without serious marriage prospects. I don’t want to give you my number, and hitting on me won’t get you free drinks. Please don’t put me in the terribly awkward position of refusing you.

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