There are good and bad bartenders out there, just like there are both kind and crazed customers. Yet interviews with local bartenders at establishments ranging from college dives to the bars of expensive restaurants revealed a remarkable consistency in the areas where they feel the customer draws first blood.
What follows is their side of the story, complete with advice, war stories and cautionary tales for the drinking public.
Speed of service is perhaps the biggest flashpoint in bartender/bar patron relations. Patrons want their drinks. If the bartender isn't speedy enough in taking their order and producing said drinks, patrons often feel slighted. Bartenders tend to see things differently.
'You want to tell people, "Look, I'm on your team.'" says Meghann McCracken, who tends bar at both d.b.a. and One Eyed Jacks. 'The faster I get you served, the more money I make and everyone's happy. But people do things that slow that all down, things they don't even know they're doing,"
Indecision over the order, being slow on the draw with cash, attempts at idle conversation while other customers are stacking up and growing more impatient " a busy bartender regards this like a disc jockey does dead air time.
'Someone will look desperate for attention, yelling and waving, you get to her and she's like "OK, um, what kind of rums do you have, what do you have for beers?'" says another bartender who works at a busy late-night bar in Uptown. 'I'm not going to sit there reading you the list of 30 beers. I can serve five people in that time and make five times the money."
A good bartender is constantly scanning the room, keeping track of who's walking in, who's ready for another round and who's waiting to pay a tab. In the single-minded focus to get that next drink, bartenders say, some patrons lose sight of the other spinning plates their server may be keeping in motion.
'You have a million and one things to do, especially if you don't have a bar back to get ice, stock the coolers. I think people just see someone not getting their drink fast enough," says Britt Guarneri, a bartender at Mid-City Yacht Club, a new corner joint on St. Patrick Street.
Make Eye Contact
But maybe you're ready. You have money in hand and a thirsty, longing look in your eyes, which are dialed in to the bartender's face, but still you're waiting there unattended. Why?
'I try not to make eye contact until I'm ready to take an order because I probably have four other drink orders in my head and I'm thinking about the change I owe the guy over there and a couple other things, but once someone makes eye contact they start yelling new drink orders at me," says McCracken.
Welcome to the Back of the Line
There are cases when bar patrons really are being singled out for slower service. Obnoxious, abusive behavior to the server or fellow patrons can quickly get someone booted to the back of the line the bartender has mentally queued up for service.
'The worst thing you get from a customer, besides poor tipping of course, is a level of aggressiveness at the bar, trying to push through people, that kind of thing," says Neal Bodenheimer, a bartender at the Delachaise. 'Whenever I notice that, I make that person wait longer."
Shouting is bad, so is the common ploy of waving things hands, money, an empty bottle, video poker slips, etc. but it's not nearly the worst of what bartenders face.
'I had a kid slamming an ashtray on the bar like a gavel, screaming at me, swearing at me for a drink," says the late-night, Uptown bartender. 'Some people whistle at you, like you're a dog in a park. Then someone grabs at you. I'll be making a drink and someone will reach across the bar and grab the back of my shirt. I turn around and there's a kid screaming at me, shoving a $20 bill in my face. If you're like that, I get more pleasure from not serving you than from whatever tip I might get from you."
If waiting is unavoidable, don't make it worse. 'If it's a really busy night, people often think if they do certain things they'll get served faster, but really sometimes they're just shooting themselves in the foot," McCracken says. 'Maybe I'll be looking serious because I'm working very hard. When someone says "Hey, smile,' it doesn't get them served any faster and it doesn't make me smile."
Always Be Tipping (ABT)
The way you want that margarita or vodka and tonic when you go to the bar, that's the way bartenders want your tips when they show up for work.
'You don't even have to be particularly polite, just be a regular guy, order a drink, tip well, and the bartender will remember you and take care of you," says another Uptown bartender. 'Money is the end of every story."
Keep that in mind, and you have the opportunity to really differentiate yourself from the sea of customers competing for the bartender's attention. Come out tipping strong on your first order, bartenders say, and you will be remembered and served faster no matter how busy the place gets.
'If you know you're going to be there for a while, throw out a bigger tip early," Bodenheimer says. 'That's the ultimate for the bartender,"
On the other hand, bartenders say low tipping is a good way to ensure you spend most of the night looking for a drink rather than sipping one. Often, they say, they can see problematic tippers coming in advance.
'The guy waving the credit card around, saying he's buying the drinks for his friends or whatever, that guy is always the worst tipper," says McCracken. 'For the most part, he's into it to impress people but he's going beyond his means so he'll leave a bad tip."
Cheapskates beware, however, because some bartenders have been known to hound customers for proper consideration.
'If he's with a girl, I'll put the credit card slip back down in front of her and let her see it," says the second Uptown bartender. 'Then you say to the guy "Did you really mean to just leave $5 on a $70 bar bill?' That $5 will turn into $15 because he doesn't want to look cheap, which he is."
Bucking the Trend
Many bartenders take pride in the tradition, the craft and the beauty of an intricate cocktail, but not at midnight when the bar is four deep with restless customers. When it comes to ordering a complex cocktail, they offer the plea that patrons remain aware of their surroundings.
'You have to know when to order a labor-intensive cocktail and when they'll taste good, when we can put the time and attention into making it right," says Bodenheimer.
If a patron orders such a drink at the wrong time, however, bartenders sometimes engage in evasive maneuvers.
'You can get out of it by asking them what's in it, because usually they don't know," says Garth Swanson, a bartender at Clancy's Restaurant. 'So you suggest something else instead and, of course, they like that, too. People are always looking for something new, and you can't blame them for that. But when it comes to trendy cocktails, by the time you order a bottle of something for a special drink and get it in, the trend has changed already. The best thing is just not to stock it, then you don't have to make it."
Other establishments have found simple and effective ways to cut demand when a cocktail trend proves too burdensome for the staff.
'I worked at a place where the sorority girls always wanted a cosmopolitan or an appletini, that kind of thing," says Guarneri. 'But really they just wanted to hold the pretty glass, they wanted something that would match their outfits. When the bar switched to only using plastic cups it ended all that, no one ordered those drinks anymore."
Bartenders report on the trend of super-sweet and caffeinated alcoholic beverages " popular among younger drinkers " with equal parts dread and revulsion.
'People swill it in incredible quantities, so they get really drunk and really hyper at the same time," says McCracken. 'Then you have people ordering something like Red Bull and Grey Goose (vodka). To me, that just means you have no clue. It costs $10, tastes horrible and you can't even tell there was a good vodka in there."
Shot in the Dark
Another trend is for increasingly sweet, brightly colored mixed shots, concoctions that typically involve a few liquors combined in a shaker. Some bartenders enjoy making them, and often partake in a sample themselves, but they caution that these drinks go by different names in different parts of the country, or even from bar to bar. They say some customers get irritated if the bartender hasn't heard of a particular drink say, a mixed shot the customer kinda, sorta remembers someone making at a house party on the Jersey shore back in the '90s " so as a defensive play some bartenders will just fake it and wager the customer won't know the difference.
'Someone orders a "green grass on my house' shot. Well, what the hell is that?" says our first late-night Uptown bartender. 'I don't care, I'll just say, "Coming right up,' and make something green. They'll drink it and start cheering, like, "Yeah, man! That's it!'"
The Doctor is Out
Everyone spills a drink now and then, but those who end up spilling their souls to the bartender may find themselves treated to the old bait and switch.
'When someone is sucking all the vitality out of my soul with their stories, that's when I start playing matchmaker," says McCracken. 'This one person is talking to you. You're like, "Uh-huh, OK, yup,' and then you bring in this other person sitting at the bar. Before they know it, they're talking to each other and I'm off doing something else."
Guarneri says she tries to field the bartender-as-therapist role if it's a slow shift, but when it gets too much, 'Suddenly, I need to go cut limes over here or wash glasses."
Local bartenders who have worked in other cities say local patrons tend to be more down to earth, but there are still some apparently looking for some juggling with their gin.
'People who watch bartender competitions or movies with people doing all these bar tricks, sometimes you have to remind them that that's TV and this is a real bar," says Guarneri. 'I don't do that stuff, of course. But one place I worked before, another bartender kept asking me, "Where's your flair?' I'm like, "I don't need flair, I'm a girl.'"
As with any business where cash is changing hands quickly, bartenders say keeping an eye out for scams goes with the territory. Someone will request change for a $10 bill, for instance, and then swear on his mother's immortal soul that he had handed over a $20 bill. Others might try to put their drinks on someone else's open tab without permission, and sometimes people try to lift tips before bartenders can come around to collect them.
Then there's the patron who wants a keepsake from the bar. This is not a hotel, and those aren't free towels.
'People try to walk out with glasses all the time," says McCracken. 'But I can usually see when someone has the glass lust. They'll ask if they can buy the glass, we say no, sorry, we have a limited stock. Then in a minute they start looking around to see if anyone's watching. We have to chase people sometimes and they'll have the glass right there in their purse."
Often confusion about money is about poor communication.
'You just need to be clear who's paying for what," says Bodenheimer. 'Say something like, "Throw his on my tab, last name so-and-so.' Don't just order and walk away. You wouldn't go to the florist with your girlfriend, say you're going to buy her a rose and then walk away without paying, right?"
Bartenders have a distinctly direct way of flattering their patrons on their fresh, youthful appearances: They card them. This is part of the job, and while most everyone knows the score and cooperates, bartenders say those most likely to put up a stink about showing ID are the very same people who should most reasonably expect to be carded.
'If someone gives me attitude about it, I guarantee you they were born in the 1980s," says McCracken. 'They freak out that you ask for ID, meanwhile the song the DJ is playing at that very moment is older than they are."
Shutting down a 19-year-old's Saturday night isn't necessarily high on the typical bartender's list of priorities, but by carding people they are following the law and protecting both their employer and themselves from liability for selling alcohol to someone underage.
'You see people get bent out of shape when we card them, even if they're 21," says Bodenheimer. 'There's usually something else going on with it. Like one of their friends with them is underage or they just turned 21 and think everyone should just be able to tell."
Be Nice or Leave
Crowd control comes with the territory for bartenders.
'As a bartender, you're serving the last legal drug in America," says Bodenheimer. 'It affects different people in different ways, and you have to make sure people are doing OK with it. Part of your job is to make sure people are having a good time. If they're not, they stop spending money. It's in your best interest to make sure everything stays fun and peaceful."
On a mellow evening, with few customers and plenty of elbowroom, everyone tends to behave, bartenders say. Insert the same people into a crowded bar scene, add the X-factor of alcohol and the situation can become volatile as people jostle for space, service and the attention of people around them.
'Fights happen late when guys realize they're not going to go home with a girl," says the bartender from the first Uptown late-night spot. 'They'll get into arguments with other guys, get too close to them, bumping into them. Then they'll try to rope the bartender into the argument, but you try to diffuse it. When there's a fight, the girls leave. When the girls leave, the guys leave, and then I don't make any money. I really don't care if two guys beat the crap out of each other, but I'm here to make money, and fights mess with that."
A pair of buttheads butting heads is hardly a dynamic restricted to late-night clubs, however. Even bartenders working at expensive restaurants have regular contact with would-be roadhouse rumblers.
'We had a ruckus a few months ago between these two regulars who have always been like oil and water with each other," says Swanson at Clancy's, who chalks up some of the odd behavior to the shadow of Katrina. 'It got to be a brawl, which is really out of character for this place. After the storm, people who normally didn't get liquored up were getting completely bombed and that's still going on to some degree today."
Love on the Rocks
For some bartenders, ducking passes is a bigger problem than dodging fists. Proving the adage that people are never more attractive than when they're on a stage or behind a bar, the occupational hazard of lonely or drunken patrons on the make proves to be a common one.
'Sometimes you're serving drinks to some guy all night, you're just being nice, you're smiling, and he starts making eyes at you and asks you out," says a bartender at one Mid-City pub. 'It's terrible, because you say, "No thank you, nothing personal, I don't mix business with pleasure,' that kind of thing. Well, the next time he comes in he might accuse you of treating him different or ignoring him. It's just because they're sensitive. My advice is not to pry, don't get too personal. If bartenders want you to know personal things about them, they'll tell you."
Other times, a patron's behavior can seem more predatory than romantic. One bartender who moonlights as a 'Jäger girl," visiting local suburban bars with shot samples or merchandise giveaways, says some patrons 'like to touch," and often get themselves bounced from the establishment. And then there's the guy with a chip on his shoulder and an arsenal of degrading remarks about the bartender's appearance or anatomy.
'If someone wants a drink, he has to go through me, and there's a type of guy who doesn't like that," says McCracken. 'It's a power thing to them. They try to make you feel small with sexist comments. I respond to that by making them feel like a jerk or by shaming them. I can get pretty schoolmarmish. You have to have a thick skin and not freak out, but at the same time have very definite boundaries.
'There's a fine line between maintaining control of the situation and setting someone off. Most people like that want a reaction " they're looking for attention and want you to respond to them. That gives them what they want. I've found a way to ignore people just long enough so that they go away. That's what I do with the a**h*** guy who wants to make comments about my anatomy."
For all the griping over stingy tippers, abusive customers, trendy tipplers and general jackassery, all the bartenders interviewed for this article say they enjoy their work. They prize the flexible schedules that allow time for other career goals, school or artistic pursuits. They like that they work in entertaining environments, where they often see their friends, hear music and make money all at once. Most of all, they like the interaction with their best customers, the times when everyone is talking and laughing, playing off each other and having a good time.
'Your good customers are usually good because they have empathy and sometimes that comes because they've worked in bars and restaurants, too," says McCracken. 'In this town, we have so many people who've been in the service industry that I really think we have a better-trained clientele than a lot of other places."