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Rules to Drink By: 10 Etiquette Tips for the Bar

Eat, drink and be merrier with these tips.
Eat, drink and be merrier with these tips.
Photo by Ed Schipul

We've all been there. We walk into a crowded bar on a Saturday night and immediately start to make a game plan. How can I get to the bar and order a drink without shoving, stepping on or cutting in front of anyone? Should I yell at the bartender? Should I wave my arms wildly to get noticed?

Or maybe being polite isn't even on your mind. Maybe you just want a drink no matter what you have to do to get it. I think we've all been there too.

In case you're not sure which route to take to keep the bartenders and other customers happy and also to get yo' bad self a drink, I've compiled a list of bar etiquette tips. With the help of local bartenders and patrons, I've come up with ten things that you must do (or not do) to make sure everyone has a good experience. And to make sure everyone is able to get sufficiently hammered, 'cause that's important too.

10. Know your surroundings If you're looking to sit at the bar and have an intimate conversation with your friend, don't go to a popular bar on a Friday night. You'll be frustrated yelling over the din of orders coming at you, and other patrons will be frustrated that you're just sitting there, taking up space at the bar. And don't even think about hanging your giant purse on the back of a chair so others can't reach the bar without knocking it all over the place. It's certainly OK to sit at the bar for a little while, but share the space. Make sure you give others the opportunity to lean over and steal a garnish as well.

9. Don't steal garnishes Yeah, I was totally kidding about leaning over and stealing garnishes. Don't do it! There's a reason they're behind the bar. No one wants your grubby hands all over their maraschino cherries and lime slices. Also, it can be disconcerting for a bartender to catch someone reaching over the counter out of the corner of her eye. If your drink doesn't have enough lime juice, just ask the bartender for some more. If you're hungry and want an olive to much on, politely request one. A bartender might not say anything if you help yourself, but he or she won't be happy with you.

 

The folks at Downhouse will be happy to surprise you, but know what you like before you order.
The folks at Downhouse will be happy to surprise you, but know what you like before you order.
Photo by Paul Ladd for Downhouse

8. Be ready to order The people behind the bar want to serve you. Most bartenders really like serving drinks, and they won't be offended if you order something complicated (so long as they have the proper ingredients and tools). But for God's sake, know what you want. If the bar is crowded and it takes you ten minutes to finally get the attention of the bartender, don't stand there and ask the bartender to wait. Ain't nobody got time for that! If you have a question, that's fine, but as soon as it's been answered, make up your mind.

7. Don't say "Just make me something..." ...unless you're at a place that specializes in mixology (yes, I hate that word too). If you're at Anvil, Mongoose Versus Cobra, Downhouse, Bad News Bar or a similarly cocktail-focused joint, generally the bartenders will be happy to show off their skills and surprise you with something unique. But don't do it at the neighborhood pub. If you tell the old dude behind the bar to make you "something citrusy but not too sweet with gin or rum but not dark rum and maybe some bitters or club soda, and if he could muddle some herbs that would be great," you're gonna get a shot and a beer. And you're gonna like it.

 

Travis at Anvil with a Ramos Gin Fizz. Be really nice if someone makes you one of those.
Travis at Anvil with a Ramos Gin Fizz. Be really nice if someone makes you one of those.
Photo from Anvil Bar & Refuge

6. Don't go to hang out with the bartender on a busy night I'm sure your best friend would love to see you when he's working behind the bar on a Saturday night. But don't plop down at the counter and expect to tell him all about your day. Order a drink, thank him, tip him and be on your way. If he has time to talk to you, he'll make it clear. Otherwise, leave him alone. You'll make him feel stressed because he can't pay attention to you, and you'll annoy your fellow drinkers. Nurse your hangover and catch up over coffee the next morning.

5. Be nice to the bartender but not passive Again, the bartender wants to help you. If you just stand there and stare blankly at the bar, she may never get the message that you're ready to order. Look interested. Make eye contact. Smile. Do a little wave if you must. Just don't snap or gesticulate wildly or yell from the other end of the bar. Wait your turn like everybody else and be polite. There's no better way to get a good drink than being the nice person in a sea of jackasses.

 

Yeah, there's no such thing at a bar. Lose the laptop.
Yeah, there's no such thing at a bar. Lose the laptop.

4. Get off the laptop Many bars these days have free WiFi, and why not? It can be nice to catch up on emails and unwind with a beer on a Saturday afternoon. But once the crowds start rolling in, put that computer away. You can get away with it if you're sitting at a table and not taking up more than your allotted space, but don't keep a computer up on the bar once it's busy. Some bars are now turning off the WiFi at 6 p.m. to get the laptop hobos out and the paying customers in.

3. Don't stand at the bar after you've gotten a drink Sitting in seats at the bar is one thing. Yes, it makes it difficult for people to get up to the bar and order, but if the seats are there, presumably they're meant to be used. Standing at the bar is something else entirely. After you get your drink, you can stand anywhere in the whole place. OK, yeah, leaning on the bar looks cool, and you have fast access to a lot of booze. But that's like idling at a table in a restaurant after you've finished a meal while there's a line of people outside waiting to get in.

 

The bar at Mongoose Versus Cobra gets pretty crowded. The servers' well is on the left. Don't stand there.
The bar at Mongoose Versus Cobra gets pretty crowded. The servers' well is on the left. Don't stand there.

2. Don't stand at the servers' well. Any bar that has servers has a servers' well. It's where the bartenders put the drinks that have been ordered by people sitting elsewhere in the bar or restaurant. Sometimes servers also go behind the bar and make their own drinks. The servers need to be able to get to the booze and the drinks, and they can't do that if you're standing in their spot. The servers' well will usually have bar mats and garnishes, and it should look a little different than the rest of the bar. Also, there won't be a chair there for obvious reasons. Don't put one there. Sitting at the servers' well will (unfortunately) not get you free food or special service, but you will most certainly be asked to move.

1. Tip well Bartenders are like waiters. They often make less than minimum wage, but they make up for it with tips. Always tip at least $1 per drink. Even if the bartender just cracked open a beer for you. You still owe him a $1 tip. For more complicated drinks, it's a good idea to tip at least 20 percent. And if the bartender ever comps food or drinks for you, it's important to tip based on what the price of those would have been. I don't want to tell you that tipping well will make bartenders remember you or treat you better, because it's different for every bartender, but it certainly made me perk up when people started tipping well after the first drink. If this tipping thing sounds too complicated and costly -- drink at home. You are not expected to tip when you buy a bottle of tequila from a liquor store.


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