How to Get a Drink at a Crowded Bar

The bartender has nearly unlimited power, and the patron has seemingly none. Is there any effective way to lobby for a drink?
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(Photo: dalboz17/Flickr)

(Photo: dalboz17/Flickr)

Finally. After spending 15 minutes squeezing your way through the cacophonous, slimy mass of drunken flesh occupying the rest of the dark, low-ceilinged dive, you've finally made it to the bar. There are 30 other customers “next” in line and a lone bartender. Is there any effective way to lobby for your drink?

The bartender-customer interaction is one without instructions. There's no velvet rope, no “take a number” routine that brings order to the chaos. It's one person behind the bar with nearly unlimited power, determining which thirsty patron gets to order next seemingly on whim alone. Or is it? I spoke to a bunch of bartenders to better understand the dynamic.

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There are, obviously, different types of bars, some subtle, some not so much. Things move more smoothly in a cocktail joint, where drinks take a few minutes and there are deft maneuvers to make, or a wine bar, where the clientele is more relaxed. But we're not talking about those spaces here. We're talking about packed dives, clubs where drink orders are “[insert here] and Red Bull,” or—one of the worst venues—huge festivals. “The pressure does get really overwhelming,” says Jenn Tran, who has bartended for a decade at places ranging from cocktail joints to strip clubs to South by Southwest. “People are drunk, and rude, and loud. It's just a matter of how quickly can you get through people in your line, take their money, count it accurately, and keep an eye on your tip jar.”

“If you snap your fingers at me, I promise you, I will never serve you.”

In situations like this, you're not going to get drinks whenever you damn well feel like it, no matter what you do. You'll have to wait long enough to muscle your way to the front of the bar. Generally, the crowd will police itself with posturing, nudges, and declarations indicating the next customer, but when it doesn't, there are ways to give yourself an advantage in the mostly wordless war with dozens of others jockeying for the next drink.

“There's a lot of leeway when it comes to choosing who could order the next drink,” says Barton Gage, who's been bartending for nearly two decades, most recently in an East Coast barcade he helped open. More often than not, this line-jumping is accomplished by not being an awful person. “It helps if you're patient and come across as nice on the first interaction,” says Paul Johnson, who has worked in bars on and off for a decade. “After that, I'll remember you're not a sweaty douchebag and go out of my way to make sure you get served.”

This was the standard reply when I spoke to a wide variety of bartenders, some friends, some friends of friends, some strangers. When called upon, be nice. “Smiling is nice,” Tran says. “If you come up and are like, 'I want this and this and that' and throw your money down, I'm not not going to serve you, but if another person comes up at the same time when you order your next round, I'm more likely to serve them first.” In fact, being nice might even make your tab a little lighter. “They might not even notice it, but I'll sometimes take a couple drinks off. The serving industry can be a really shitty job, so if you're acting nice, we try to find a way to help you back.”

Consider this, then, the Golden Rule of Getting Drinks: Be Nice.

Where you decide to place yourself at the bar can also make a difference. “I will try to take as few steps as possible,” says Casey Linney, who has been bartending for the past two years in restaurants and sports bars. “Stand by the well or taps if you can, that's where I'll be the most so you might be able to get your order in faster.” It also helps to appear ready. “Having money out indicates you know what you want and are ready to go, so it can move you up in the order.” The bartender being familiar with your easy-to-make drink choices doesn't hurt either. “If I know you're someone who generally orders basic cocktails, shots, or beer I'll get to you quicker because I know I can make your drink fast before moving on.”

“Anyone who orders a Long Island Ice Tea puts you on the radar as someone looking to get drunk really fast,” Gage says.

This being a currency-based industry, there are, of course, certain ways a customer can use money to their advantage. “If someone tipped me well, if they're two or three people back in line, as I'm making a drink I'll ask them what they want,” Gage says. “They get to jump the line by a minute or two.” But it can't be the standard one- or two-dollar tip that is, by now, Standard Operating Procedure. A five or 10 helps. If you're in a club, it might take $20 or $50. But this doesn't give you carte blanche to act like a fool. “Everyone's there to spend money,” Johnson says. “Your $5 or $10 tip isn't worth the $40 or $50 I'm losing out on because other people don't want to be there.”

If “being nice” is a bit of a nebulous directive—which, it really shouldn't be difficult to simply be nice—it's worth pointing out there is a long list of actions that will do the exact opposite of getting you drinks quickly.

“If somebody's being a dick to me or someone around them, they get knocked to the bottom of the list,” says Janine Ellis, who has the distinction of being the first female bartender at New York's famed White Horse Tavern. Among those not-so-nice moves? “Waving hands like they're waiving down air rescue.”

This mentality was not only common, but universal. Every bartender I spoke to mentioned that gesturing will get you instantly placed quickly on a last-serve list. “If you snap your fingers at me, I promise you, I will never serve you,” Tran says. “If you say something like, 'If you don't serve me now, you can say goodbye to your tip': Cool, you're getting out of my face, and that's tip enough.”

Same thing goes for whistling, cat-calling, or throwing money/credit cards at the bartender. Wait patiently, have your order ready, be nice. It's not a Soup Nazi-level of formalities, but don't muck things up. A failed social interaction with a bartender isn't just putting you at the back of the line. It's also putting the rest of the staff on alert. “If someone is not playing the game correctly, if you can't handle the ordering part, that puts them on the radar for the whole back of the house,” Gage says.

Which brings us to the other big bartender-customer interaction: the ol' 86.

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The bartender is not just the gatekeeper between alcohol and consumer; they're also the ultimate judge of when someone's had too much. The 86, or Deep Six, or “throw them out on their ass,” is their trump card. While this kind of power may seem fun to wield, no bartender I spoke to enjoyed the process. “That's the last thing I want to do, especially if I'm that busy,” says Justin Celmer, who's been working bars for 11 years. “I don't have time for that.”

“A lot of bartenders are over-serving now,” Tran says. “It's poor training. And maybe people don't like confrontation, and don't want to say no, and don't want to lose tips.”

Besides the above examples of “red flag” behavior, there are other cues bartenders use to mark certain people as potential future problems. “Anyone who orders a Long Island Ice Tea puts you on the radar as someone looking to get drunk really fast,” Gage says. “Drinks like Sex on the Beach or pop culture drinks, or someone who complains about the price. You can have opinions, but what are you doing at a bar if you don't want to spend money?” From there, you're marked. If it's a large group, bartenders will find whoever seems to be in charge. “You pull someone aside and say, 'Hey, we need to slow this down,'” Celmer says. Usually, things calm down right there. Or the group leaves for another bar with a looser definition of what intoxication means. “For the most part you're embarrassing them, and they want to get out of there right away,” Ellis says.

Sometimes, it takes a nudge to get them out the door. “One of our policies is that if someone does get that way, we'll pay for the cab,” Gage says. “It takes away the financial impact of cutting someone off and not letting them drive away.” Gage says this is a pretty common policy, albeit one bars don't readily advertise. It's not something bar employees do out of the goodness of their hearts either. “We are liable, legally, if someone gets in trouble," he says. "As a bartender, you are liable if you over-served them." And, yes, sometimes drunks don't go easy and have to be taken outside by security. That's not fun for anyone, not least because they're rarely in the appropriate mental state for signing the bill. "Trying to get someone to pay at that point as you're escorting them out is a hassle," Celmer says.

But 86'ing may be happening less frequently than it used to. "A lot of bartenders are over-serving now," Tran says. "It's poor training. And maybe people don't like confrontation, and don't want to say no, and don't want to lose tips." This may be the result of the new reality of online review websites. "We're working in the age of Yelp," Ellis says. "There's so much competition, so many choices, you have to go above and beyond in the customer service world, even if they kind of do seem like an asshole. You need people to keep coming back."

The Sociological Imagination is a regular Pacific Standard column exploring the bizarre side of the everyday encounters and behaviors that society rarely questions.

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