Saturday, June 30, 2012

It's all about the bartender...

An Aviation, Sloane Square Hotel
    In fact there are a lot of things that make up a great visit to a bar - whether it's a one time visit while traveling or another regular evening at your local. Decor, atmosphere, fellow patrons all have a part to play in determining a memorable and relaxing time. As I contemplate a relocation from one side of the world to the other and leaving my beloved local behind, I am realizing once again how important the bartender is above all of the other things that make up a great bar.
    It might be because she is a master mixologist, the Ferran Adria of cocktails. It could be because he always remembers your name, and/or your favorite tipples. It might be because they are such incredible social engineers that they always make everyone in the place feel great, and happy to be there. If you are a truly worthy and fortunate soul it might be all three. A great bartender can make you forget bad decor and overlook even the stingiest of well-brands or the most industrial of taps. Even when the delivery is a little shaky or the range of the menu is small and simple, the right person behind the bar can still make you happy to be there (and it's not just the booze talkin').   
    If you are still with me in my stipulation of the bartender-as-key, I thought I would press my luck and share what works for me in establishing and maintaining this all important relationship as a gateway to imbibing happiness.

Charming service at Sloane Square
1) Service is not servitude.
If you want to have a seriously good time it's very important that you not view the bartenders as indentured servants or as a species lower on the evolutionary ladder than you. You have your areas of knowledge and expertise and so do bartenders - which is why, after all, you are here. Sure, there are places with service so crisp that beverages appear and empties disappear as if conjured into and out of the ether, and interaction is limited. You still should not view the staff as lesser beings, and even the most modest signs of mutual respect are usually noted and appreciated. That appreciation can be astoundingly delicious.

2) If you like something, don't be afraid to say so.

Perfect pour 
When you get an especially good version of an Aviation, or a Sazerac made with an especially interesting rye you should by all means provide positive feedback. Simply showing that you appreciate the quality of what you are drinking is a great way to make sure the quality keeps coming. Subtle appreciative nods or mmm's and ahhhh's can send the signal that you like what is being offered, and can get the bartender to pay attention or even up their game as the evening goes on. If you have the chance to provide a more detailed critique, this sends the signal that you are a force to be reckoned with, and your palette is mighty. Which ups the game even more.  Likewise, politely letting a bartender know that they might be heading in the wrong direction is definitely ok - they don't want to make anyone unhappy, and it helps them to re-calibrate back towards the happy side of the street.

3) Dealer's choice is often very rewarding.
Bartending in many places has become a form of cuisine a la minute, and bartenders have become like chefs in building their own bitters, syrups, and infusions. Giving the bartender the chance to improvise and create something on-the-fly allows them to use and demonstrate their skills at the highest levels. Then you get to drink it. It signals that you recognize their talent and that you trust them to deliver something unique and frequently amazing. Even simple beer and wine bars have become not-so-simple and offer enough selection these days that you can defer to the skill of the publican, and ask them for something a little different - that odd Dunkel that you had not thought of trying yet, or the British Columbian Pinot Noir you had never heard of. If you don't want to drink the same thing all the time, and you want to discover new things, allow a native guide to lead you.

4) It's not all about money
Englischer Garten, Augustiner vom fass
I'm quite deliberately avoiding the "throw money at it" approach. Ordering the most expensive things and tipping lavishly might seem like shortcuts to a better world, but the truth is that unless you are trying some of the other suggestions being made here the money will be easily recognized as the empty and soulless gesture that it is. Tipping is important, especially in those countries where people in the hospitality industry are rarely paid a living wage (you know who you are). A tip from someone who has clearly enjoyed the labor, and treats people with respect is worth a lot more, and you will be remembered not as a whale or rube, but as a great customer. (Personally, I love the UK tradition of simply asking the bartender when ordering a round, "And one for yourself, then?)

    These are by no means all of the secrets to having a great relationship with your bartender, but if you try to follow these guidelines, it's more than likely you'll be on your way to having a great time and discovering some new things along the way. If you have a favorite method of cementing a strong relationship with your bartender, please share!


  1. Nicely written! When I tended bar on a regular basis, people often would ask me, 'no, but what do you really do?' It certainly felt to me as if what I was currently doing somehow wasn't worthy of their merit. Many would of course then regale me with tales of when they 'bartended' during grad school, or what-not, and how it was a 'great experience'.

    I liked regulars who were smart, funny, and engaging. -sort of how I hoped they'd seen me! I could care less what they drank (one regular who then became a dear friend usually wouldn't venture beyond a Budweiser and a gaggle of rugby playing chaps seemed inclined toward the 'girly drinks') as long as they had smarts and could comport themselves somewhat reasonably at the bar.

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