How to Get and Keep a Bartender’s Attention

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Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

The first time I walked into a crowded bar I thought I had to work for a drink. Short, skinny and not particularly loud, I jockeyed for a spot. I hovered near the bar hatch and leaned over the counter, anything for a glance. One friend wanted a whiskey. Neat or on the rocks? Both. Another wanted an Old-Fashioned, which meant nothing to me. I ordered two. Reaching for my wallet, I realized I had no idea what to tip. I was a terrible patron.

Over the years I slowly learned better, but the questions never really went away: How should I tip? What’s the best way to order a drink? How can I get the bartender’s attention without being obnoxious?

In interviews, 15 current and former bartenders outlined the common etiquette shared by dives, biergartens, speakeasies and everything in between. By tending to good bar culture, they said, you’ll have more fun, win the favor of your favorite bartenders and avoid gaining a bad reputation.

“Bartenders are the captain of the ship,” said Gaz Regan, the author of “The Joy of Mixology.” “Listen to them, or you’re out of there.”

No two bars are exactly alike, but they grow more similar as people pour in, and bad patrons pop up everywhere.

“If you’re the person waving a $20 bill at the end of the bar and saying, ‘Hey chief,’ nobody likes that,” said David Wondrich, senior drinks columnist for The Daily Beast. Whistle, snap or shout, and you will probably wait.

“These are great ways to get me to ignore you,” said Stephen Brady, a bartender in Philadelphia. “A good bartender is already aware of everything that’s going on at their bar.”

Nor do “ambiguous hand gestures” endear customers to staff members, said Kelly Williams Brown, author of an etiquette book, “Gracious,” and a former bartender in New Orleans. An elbow cocked at 90 degrees, finger pointing skyward and looping, she noted, could mean either to close the tab or bring another round. “Everyone has their own private sign language.”

One exception: scribbling imaginary pen to imaginary paper, the universal call for the bill.

The best way to get a bartender’s attention, they suggested, is simple acknowledgment, like eye contact, easily made when a bartender looks up from the register or starts a new run from one end of the bar to the other. Then patience.

“If you have to wait five minutes, it may seem like 15,” said Michael Turback, a retired restaurateur, “but if you step up to a busy bar you can’t expect you’ll become the center of attention.”

Unless business is slow, bartenders dread patrons who lapse into indecision, turn to distracted friends or suddenly remember the menu. “More than anything I’m surprised,” Ms. Brown said. “What were you doing with this time?”

Bartenders also urged patrons not to separate specific drinks from a group tab. Mr. Regan suggested groups write down orders on a phone or paper to clear up confusion in a loud bar.

“It’s more simple to make them all together,” said Craig Johnston, a retired bartender in South Florida. “It’s our business to serve you but also to keep moving. When you’re not ready, that’s wasting our time.”

On a lazy weekday evening, feel free to ask questions, mull the menu and order its most complicated cocktail. On a packed Friday night, a bartender will not enjoy muddling mint for a mojito.

“At a busy bar you’re not there to enjoy a fine cocktail,” Mr. Wondrich said. “Odds are you’re there for the atmosphere or the party. Keep it simple.”

Similarly, avoid orders that run counter to a bar’s strengths: A dive most likely won’t have a witch’s cabinet of cocktail ingredients, and a wine bar won’t stock a cellar of ales. Mr. Turback said a common pet peeve was when patrons make an order “you yourself know is a little odd.” Bartenders want to help, he said, but patrons who meet them halfway will have better drinks and faster service.

Summing up an anecdote about one patron’s painful mistake, Nicky Woolf, a former London bartender, proposed a rule: “Don’t order flaming shots at the local pub.”

Bartenders described their worst offenders as those who act entitled or disrespectful, expecting free drinks, dropping names, losing self-control or stretching legs onto seats and arms across bars. Some people reach into garnishes meant for drinks, and others rip apart napkins and coasters, said Franck Duval, a bar manager at the Hoxton hotel in Amsterdam. “I get they have stress, but, man, you can feel it in the sofa everywhere.”

Jacob Tschetter, a bartender at Grand Army Brooklyn, said “a truly bad patron is one who’s bad with physical boundaries.” Mr. Tschetter and several others described unsolicited touching — arms, shoulders, hair, beards — as a cardinal sin of the bar, and one that disproportionately affects women.

“You have to remain dignified because it’s your place of work, but you’re thinking, Don’t touch me,” one Brooklyn bartender recalled, with a request for anonymity after she directed a curse toward offending clientele.

Bartenders want to make customers happy but said a bar was no one’s home. At hotel bars and local pubs, children and dogs wear out their welcome with nightfall. As bars fill up, time expires on saved seats. In a nightclub, backed by music and lit by strobes, affection is often made public; around a scotch bar’s quiet chatter and squeaky upholstery, it’s better kept private. Bars try to cultivate an environment — raucous or bookish, lavish or Irish — and upsetting that quality can mark a patron in the eyes of staff.

“The bartender’s inviting you into the place where they basically live,” said Jeff Davis, a bartender at the West, in Brooklyn. “If you treat it like your own house, that’s a step too far.”

There’s no magic to becoming a regular, but friendliness goes far.

“Pitch in,” Mr. Wondrich suggested. “If the bar is slammed and there’s empty pint glasses all over the place, pick some up. Treat it like you belong but not like you own the place.”

Noting that in many states bars can be held liable for customers, Ms. Brown said “a good bar citizen” could look out for potential trouble and alert bartenders to people who seem too intoxicated or at risk. “Safety trumps etiquette,” she said.

When it’s quiet, make conversation. “There’s nothing wrong with going to a bar and just getting a soda to hang out,” Mr. Tschetter said. “Engage with the bartender, ask what they’re interested in, get to know them.”

He warned, however, that despite the occasional resemblance to therapists or priests, bartenders prefer conversations to confessions. “I’m always happy to offer help and guidance,” he said, “but I am not a licensed professional.”

Bartenders suggested only a few loose rules for tipping, because, like ordering, tipping largely depends on a bar’s culture and cost. But they said patrons should give at minimum a dollar per beer or wine, $2 per cocktail, or 18 percent to 20 percent. Don’t leave change on the bar, and in the event of a free drink, tip for its full price. Like waiters, most bartenders rely on tips to pay the rent.

When service is bad, consider talking with a manager or deciding not to return, rather than shirking part of someone’s wage.

The patron who tips early and well will get better and faster service. If you hope to become a regular, tip early and often (though remember that tips don’t purchase permission to stay late or act out). And while you can always offer to buy a bartender a drink, don’t be disappointed if house rules forbid it.

“In all honesty,” Mr. Regan said, “they’d probably rather have a bigger tip.”

 

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