A guide to bar etiquette, according to bartenders
I live in New Orleans, which means that I hang out in bars. But I practice intuitive drinking — a more intentional way of imbibing. This means I’m drunk a lot less often than the average tourist standing next to me at one of these bars, behaving in ways that they would never behave at home. What I'm saying, my drunk friends, is: I see you, and y’all really need to learn some bar etiquette. I asked some bartenders from around the US to school us on how they want to be treated (spoiler alert: like a human being) as well as how to score free drinks — because fantastic manners are deserving of a liquid reward.
Drew Johnson, Freehold and Dear Irving, New York City
“Any time you want better service, the place you want to start is empathy. You have no idea how many times I ask someone, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ and they say, ‘Vodka soda.’
You don’t have to be overly cordial. I’ll still take care of you. If you simply show a genuine interest and give a decent tip the first round, I will skip everyone else to get you first next time. And I’ll tell all my coworkers that you’re cool, just because you weren’t an asshole. One nice person can make all the difference, and it’s the little things that help. If you just say, “‘how are you?’ and add one line of dialogue, you will be treated generously.
The best way to get a free drink is to offer the bartender a free shot. That won’t work at a nightclub, but if you go to a neighborhood dive — a place you know staff can drink on the clock, it’ll work. It’s a little bit of a risk, because they could charge you for the shot, but they usually won’t.”
Tiffanie Barriere, Les Dames d’Escoffier, Atlanta
“Make eye contact! It’s hard to hear in some bars and other bars are so quiet you have to lean in for the whisper. If we look in one another’s eyes, you at least connect. And bartenders have magic powers and can read your eyes — and predict your orders — sometimes. Some call it silent service.
Getting free drinks is all about etiquette and your curiosity about flavors. Jump into a bartender’s day and allow yourself to be educated. It’s like a date at the bar. Questions and curiosity get us even more engaged. If you show genuine interest in the drinks, you may get to taste things or be a part of a bartender working on a new cocktail. The guest becoming a guinea pig often leads to a free drink.
Most bars have enough space in the daily budget to “comp” drinks. The comps include drinks that are sent back, spilled during service, made wrong, mis- ordered, or just as a token of simple customer appreciation. You, as the person on the other side of the bar, are aiming for the appreciation drink.”
Alexanderia O’Neal, Tope Lounge, San Francisco
“My personal rule is that if you wouldn't say it to a male bartender, don't say it to me. We want you to have fun and enjoy yourselves, but we are at work and a sense of mutual respect goes a long way.
The best way to gain attention from a bartender is honestly just be patient. If the bartender is any good, we know you're waiting for a drink. Eye contact usually denotes that we see you, and you're probably next. The easiest way to get ignored is to wave the bartender down or even wave in their face, snap, show money or a card.
If you tip well on the first round, it will help you stand out. For the most part, every pour is the same. However, regulars usually get a heavier pour, but not every time. The best way to not get a generous pour is to ask for a drink to be ‘stronger’ and not want to pay for an extra shot. It's not our product to give away. You wouldn't ask for extra food or clothing without paying for it."
Autumn Young, Court of Two Sisters, New Orleans
“If you come in and I’m slammed, smile and have money in your hand. Cash is always preferable to a card because I know I’ll get that tip right now.
I will give the person who is funny or nice a larger pour. It’s all symbiotic, it’s about us making each other’s days better. Bartending can get boring and tedious, just like any other job. Ask questions about my day and where I’m from. If I’m not busy, ask about liquors you aren’t familiar with and cocktails you’ve never tried. Odds are, if you are interested in something, I can tell you how it’s best served and if you seem interested, I might make us both a shot.
Another way to get a free drink or round of drinks is to buy the bartender a mixed shot. If I have someone offer to buy me a drink, I will make a shaker of something and pour one for everyone in the party."
Evan Wolf, The Company Burger, New Orleans
"The way to get attention is to be attentive. If you pay attention while you’re waiting, I will notice. When I’m making drinks, I’m scanning the bar for all the eyes on me and making eye contact with everyone who’s looking at me.
Free drinks can be a dark road. For the most part, I put everything on the tab. The truth is that unless you’re an owner, you’re giving away someone else’s product, so I try to be careful. Comps and giveaways are built in, though. if you’re a good regular, if you’re friendly and generous, I’ll be friendly and generous with you. I don’t just mean being generous with money, I mean that you show gratitude and enthusiasm for how you’re being treated at my bar."