7 Ways to Be Your Bartender’s Best Friend

By Rochelle Bilow

There’s nothing like a good, dark bar. The details are irrelevant: The walls could be covered in graffiti or mounted jackalope heads. The floor could be covered in wide wood planks or sticky beer and peanut shells (Hey, we can get down with that). If there’s booze, a good playlist, and that ever-elusive great “ambiance,” we want to drink there.

But whether you’re paying $16 a pop for artisanal cocktails or $5 for a shot and a beer, one thing’s for sure: When it comes to bar behavior, there are rules, people. Rules! We spoke to two top bar managers and owners about the most egregious offenses a bar-goer can make. Avoiding these common mistakes will ensure that everyone has a good time. And for crying out loud, charge your cell phone before you leave the house.

1. Don’t Snap, Wave, or Exhibit Otherwise Demeaning Behavior to Get Your Bartender’s Attention

“Waving your hands at a bartender or server seems like a nice way to get their attention, right?” asks Jeffrey Morgenthaler, bar manager at Pépé Le Moko in Portland, OR. Yeah…not so much. We can see how, at first blush, this seems like the way to go about it. It’s loud in the bar, and you don’t want to shout over the crowd to alert the bartender to your pressing need of more bourbons. But waving (or worse, snapping) immediately sours the tone and places your bartender in a position of servitude. We needn’t remind you that your bartender isn’t, actually, your servant; rather, a thinking, feeling human being not unlike yourself. So lose the ‘tude and do what actually works. It’s actually pretty darn easy, according to Morgenthaler: “Wait patiently. We know what we’re doing, we know who’s next. We’ll be with you as soon as we can.”

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2. Don’t Take Up More than Your Fair Share of Space

Great news: Despite the stink eye you’re getting from that dude behind you waving a twenty, it’s not taboo to perch at the bar. By coming to the bar and ordering a drink—you are ordering a drink, right?—you’re paying for a little piece of real estate, says Morgenthaler. What’s not okay? Setting your purse or backpack on a chair. Unless your bag is getting shnockered on amaretto sours, that is, in which case maybe we have bigger issues to talk about. What to do about a night that starts quietly (those corner seats were perfect!) and gets raucous as the evening wears on (now you can’t even hear yourself think!)? If the bar is screaming loud and you’re constantly being bumped and jostled by other people trying to order a drink, here is an elegant solution to the problem: Relocate to a quieter portion of the room. And speaking of getting shnockered, this is a good time to bring up the delicate issue of sloppy behavior. On to our next point…

3. Keep It Classy (a.k.a. Don’t Be a Wastey-Face)

Sure, it’s a bartender’s responsibility not to over-serve patrons, and you’d better believe they do try to keep things in check. But babysitters they are not, and the bulk of the responsibility falls on the bar-goer—that’s you. Paul Calvert of Paper Plane in Decatur, GA, says that his bartenders are trained in tactics to “pump the breaks,” like refilling a water glass but not offering more alcohol, or sending out a plate of starchy food at just the right moment. “Sometimes I’ll look at someone and just think, ‘Your face says French fries all over it,’” he says, citing a free plate as one of his most effective “Jedi mind tricks.”

Bars present a unique challenge within the hospitality industry, because on any given night a portion of the patrons are present not just to enjoy a glass of wine or a cocktail, but to get drunk. It’s a cold, sloppy fact of the business. If that’s your game plan, roll with a designated driver, call a cab, or sleep underneath the bar. Just kidding about that last one.

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4. Play Nice With Others

Know what sounds great? Morgenthaler’s description of Pépé Le Moko: ”We’re a bar that prides itself on being a safe and comfortable place for women, so nobody is going to be allowed to change that. Also? Racism and homophobia can go elsewhere.” You know what doesn’t sound so great? Bar fights, crude remarks, shouting, rude remarks, and otherwise jerky drunk people. Alcohol can loosen inhibitions, making honesty a little easier, but that is in no way a license to be belligerent, offensive, or otherwise buffon-ish. If you can’t play nice, don’t play there at all. Alcohol is not a valid excuse, so just because you’re in a bar does not mean you can let ‘er rip. And, for the record, that is not license to take any argument “outside.” Nothing good ever happened to an argument taken outside.

Essentially, explains Calvert, you should conduct yourself in a bar exactly how you would anywhere else. “If it’s unacceptable behavior on a bus, in a store, or in a church, it’s probably unacceptable behavior in a bar, too,” he says, citing homophobia and racism as the two biggest offenders.

5. Charge Your %&@! Phone at Home

Ah, the question of the moment: Why is it so difficult for us to fully charge our cell phones before leaving our homes? At Paper Plane, the policy on charging customers’ cells behind the bar is simple: No. Calvert actually designed the bar to hide electrical outlets to discourage pushy customers. “I don’t get it,” he says. “I charge my phone every night, and then at the end of the day I go home and do it all over again.” Bartenders are in the business of serving you tasty drinks, not in providing dockets for your to juice up your gadgets. If you feel the entitled to charge in a space, perhaps you are thinking of your house or apartment, where there are outlets a-plenty.

6. Choose the Right Bar for Your Needs

“Decide what you’re in the mood for, then own it,” says Calvert. Feeling amped about a dirty dive bar that only serves canned domestic beer? Awesome! Do it up. Just don’t get mad if you sashay into an upscale martini bar and no one will serve you a Bud. Ditto for your 12-ingredient martini during darts-and-wing night at the dive. Now, that said, once you’ve found the bar of your dreams don’t be ashamed of your order. Let your drink flag fly! No good bartender will make fun of you for ordering a pink martini—at least not to your face. Most bartenders would never intentionally be rude or hostile toward a customer, but ego is hugely at play in this growing industry, and the pressure is high for bartenders and spirit professionals to flaunt their knowledge. This kick-starts a vicious cycle in which the customer feels intimidated and tries to prove how much he knows, lest the bartender think him an ignoramus. This is no fun for anyone involved, says Calvert, so order with confidence and own your drink choice.

7. Bartenders and Customers: Tip Well and Be Appreciative

While the issue of tipping is a hotly contested one (Should we do away with tips completely? Will that upset the whole system?), one thing is for sure: In our current bar climate, it’s incredibly important to tip fairly. Yeah, okay. Got it. Now, what’s “fairly”? According to Calvert, that means a 15-20% tip. Yep. Just like dining out. Anything above and beyond is a nice surprise; anything less is a little disappointing. If you’re dropping in for just a drink, a dollar or two will suffice. If you’re paying with a card, don’t forget to write in a tip. What about those on the receiving end of a tip? Be gracious and appreciative, urges Calvert. “If someone is friendly and respectful all night, then leaves a 10% tip, don’t write them off as a jerk. Maybe they did the best they could. Maybe they go out one night a month, and you just gave them a really great experience and a great drink. That’s worth something.” (That said, please tip well.)

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photo: Zach DeSart