From Behind the Bar: What Not to Say to a Bartender

From Behind the Bar

Tales from our resident bartender.


[Photograph: Alice Gao]

What I'm Drinking: Choice Organic Chamomile-Spearmint Tea (cold, unsweetened)

Bartenders are—pretty much by definition—human beings, thus are subject to the same moods, whims, quirks, and personality disorders that others of our species are known to exhibit. The job requires us to suppress these foibles for the sake of hospitality, pretend we've had the greatest day, and spend the bulk of our night being nice to complete strangers.

It turns out that our customers are human beings as well. Sometimes they're great, you get along instantly, and everyone has a fantastic time. Sometimes you rub each other the wrong way, everyone is uncomfortable and walks away feeling like they would rather be somewhere else.

While it is not my job to like you, it is my job to deliver good service. A smart bartender learns quickly to keep personal feelings away from the bar in most circumstances, which substantially lowers the odds of getting ourselves in a tricky personal situation. Bartenders have thick skins and short attention spans for exactly this purpose.

That said, some people make it really difficult to keep up the facade. There are a few phrases that, when I hear them uttered, tell me I am in for a challenging night.

1. "I'm a really good tipper." No, you're probably not. On the contrary, someone who utters this phrase is more likely to leave no tip at all. Generous tippers never flaunt the fact; they don't need to.

2. "Hook me up." "Make it strong." Or anything else that implies that you're looking for more than you are willing to pay for. Sure, I have a bottle in my hand and can pour you as much as can fit in a glass, much like a bank teller has all that cash in front of her and could, theoretically, hand it all over to you. What's stealing in a bank is also stealing in a bar. If you want a double, ask for one and pay what it costs. Don't expect the bartender to jeopardize his job so you can skate out of paying for what you consume.

3. "What do you really do?" People want to hear that I am an actor or musician or painter or novelist. Because what I'm doing right now couldn't possibly be good enough.

4. "I know the owner." Fantastic! So do I. In fact, I work for him. Most people who utter this phrase are generally looking for special treatment, and they usually drop the "owner-bomb" after a request they have made has been denied. What do you mean I can't walk outside with my beer? I know the owner.

5. Can you turn down the music? This one is a bit situational. Sometimes the music really is too loud, and either no one has noticed or no one cares to fix it. Most times, I get this request from people who are trying to have an intimate conversation in a busy bar when everyone else is dancing and having a good time. Yes, I have compassion for the fact that you and your friend are trying to catch up, but I'm not going to deny everyone else so you can chat.

6. Snap. Whistle. Grab. Don't do it. Ever. I am not a dog to be called over at your whim. I am not your personal servant, to be beckoned over the second you think you deserve attention.

Yes, it is a bartender's job to serve everyone with the same degree of warmth and enthusiasm, but none of us lives in a vacuum. This is true not just for bartenders, but for people across the service industry. So when you're in a bar, restaurant, drycleaner, or anywhere else that you have people taking care of your needs, the easier you make it for people to be nice to you, the better experience you will have.

While I understand that you're paying for an experience, you have to understand that it's a two-way street. After all, we're all only human.