Bartending Etiquette

by Robert Plotkin

A quick look around the room tells the story. The guy in the corner booth — the one with the irritated expression — has a drink sloshing over the rim with little pieces of sopping paper napkin stuck to the sides. The woman to his right is miffed: The cigarette she just lit has turned into a soggy mess because the ashtray the bartender left her was wet on the inside.

She looks a lot happier, though, than the guys in the suits at the bar. They’ve been waiting easily ten or twelve minutes with empty glasses and an over-flowing ashtray. The impatient rapping of their glasses on the bar is a sure sign they’re a lost cause. A few short minutes later the two briskly head out the front door with the deportment of men who have tolerated enough bad service for one night.

The problem is that the bartender is otherwise occupied. Occasionally making drinks for the servers, washing a glass or two and flirting with the coed sitting by the station is about all the young man can handle.

Murphy’s Law – people get the worst service on those dog days when they can least emotionally afford it.

We all have our thresholds. Rankle our sensibilities, trod on our concepts of lounge etiquette, and we’ll rebel. There are unwritten conventions governing professional bar conduct. You know most of them intuitively. So why is it that so many bartenders consistently step on those conventions? And why do they all seem to wait on you?

One such convention suggests that you’re pushy if you inquire whether a customer would like another drink when the person’s glass is still half full (or empty), and you’re inattentive if you wait until he is spinning the glass upside down on a length of sip sticks. The time to ask is when the person’s drink is about a quarter full (or three-quarters empty).

In a perfect world, glasses wouldn’t sweat and cocktail napkins would last longer than 2-3 minutes. In this dimension we’re left with the reality that these ubiquitous paper squares disintegrate when wet. Soggy, tattered napkins belie the quality of the service rendered. Cocktail napkins should be changed with regularity. Either that or switch to coasters.

Few things disturb gin and tonic drinkers more than bartenders who drop in lime wedges without first squeezing the juice out of them. Fishing a lime wedge out of a drink is low on most people’s list of fun things to do in public. Along the same lines, a lemon twist is so named because it is meant to be twisted, an action that will express the lemon’s essential oils and fragrance into the drink. The outer peel is then rubbed along the rim of the glass so the flavor of the lemon can be appreciated. Do the same thing with speared olives or cocktail onions.

Cigarette smokers are serious folks. Before messing with their ash trays, bartenders better be well-versed in proper etiquette or be wearing non-flammable clothing. Nothing wears out its welcome quicker than a dirty ashtray. Changing an ashtray after each butt may strike customers as excessive, but leaving more than two in there is borderline negligent. Capping a clean ashtray over a dirty one will prevent ashes from flying out. After the exchange has been made, the clean ashtray should be returned to the spot – the exact spot – where the customer had it. Yet the number one offense is still giving a customer a wet ashtray.

Tacky, also, is a bartender who is conspicuous when counting his tips. Gratuities are a private matter between two people – the customer and bartender – played out in a public setting. Counting one’s tips is indiscreet. Likewise, tip jars overflowing with large bills and treasury notes should be kept out of view. It is unlikely that it will make people want to dig deep to contribute and some may actually find it offensive.

Another source of ruffled feathers is failing to acknowledge that customers exist. When people sit down at a bar, they will extend the bartender a certain grace period before she sidles over to take their order. Miss the grace period and she’ll have to nearly kill them with hospitality to overcome the snub. If the bartender is temporarily too busy to wait on guests, that grace period can be easily extended with a smile and an “I’ll be right with you.”

If you’re one who likes to keep score, forgetting what a person is drinking leaves a negative impression (minus two points), while recalling a regular customer’s name and using it correctly in a sentence is a major bartending coup (plus six points). Being friendly and polite is still politically correct (plus five), but gratuitous, overly friendly behavior is as convincing as a soap opera love scene (minus 3).

A bartender’s professionalism is most apparent when the bar is busy. Whether it’s that certain “calm under fire” quality or their precise bursts of movement, really good bartenders are a pleasure to watch. On the flip side, a bartender who loses his cool, making the customers bear the brunt of his anger, is like a cold hard slap of reality. People get slapped around plenty in their day-to-day life without being subjected to it during “happy hour.”

Customers are notorious for asking bartenders for drink suggestions, and a shrug of the shoulder is an inappropriate response. Bartenders are well advised to have a repertoire of good tasting, creative drink recipes in mind that will fit the bill. They should also make sure that they hear drink orders in their entirety, noting any and all pouring instructions such as “. with a twist,” “. with a splash” or “. with a water back.” Customers seldom hide their irritation when their drinks aren’t made up to their specifications.

When all else fails, bartenders should frequently air-out their sense of humor. After all, it may be the only time the customer laughs all day.

Ten Do’s & Don’ts for Behind the Bar

  1. DON’T – Settling for mediocrity is unprofessional. Bartenders shouldn’t serve drinks that have been improperly prepared or are inferior in any respect. Amateurism is not a tipped quality.
  2. DON’T – It is highly unprofessional to gossip, argue, gamble or lend money to the clientele. By any means possible, bartenders should also avoid becoming embroiled in inflammatory conversations. Taking sides in a heated debate exacts a heavy toll on gratuities.
  3. DO – Bartenders should treat all guests fairly and equitably. It is a mistake to provide select customers with obviously preferential service.
  4. DO – Bartenders should strive to keep the bar as clean as possible. One adage states that “a bartender’s professionalism can be measured by the cleanliness of her bar.”
  5. DON’T – Bartenders should avoid listening in on customers’ conversations and should only comment on something that was said if addressed directly.
  6. DON’T – When customers place an order and include a drink for a person who is not yet present, the bartender should wait to prepare the cocktail until the person arrives. The missing person could be a minor or already intoxicated.
  7. DO – “Up-selling” is considered a basic reflex. Bartenders should automatically inquire of a customer who orders generic call if there is a particular name-brand product that he would prefer the drink made with. Upgrade the sale and upgrade the gratuity.
  8. DO – Bartenders should maintain eye contact whenever speaking directly to customers. Not only is this a tried-and-true means of establishing a positive impression, but it also is a reliable means of assessing customers’ alcohol-induced impairment.
  9. DO – Lighting customers’ cigarettes is a time-honored tradition and is always an appropriate gesture.
  10. DO – Bartenders should only handle glassware by the bottom half, carefully avoiding the areas of the glass that will be in contact with the customer’s mouth or the drink itself. Touching the top-half, the rim or the inside the glass is unsanitary and unprofessional.

ROBERT PLOTKIN is the president of the National Bar & Restaurant Association and author of numerous books including Successful Beverage Management- Proven Strategies for the On-Premise Operator. He can be reached at Barmedia, 800-421-7179, or e-mail him at

Contact: Dave Grimm
(720) 881-5477