This Is What a Bartender First Notices About You
The smallest things reveal a lot about you
Bartenders are a combination of mixologist, server, nurse, janitor and therapist, so their people-watching skills are top-notch. “The longer you work this job, the better you get at reading people—and the more important you realize it is,” says Lea Miner, a bartender at a fine-dining restaurant in Boulder, Colorado. “Understanding the customer not only helps us serve you better, but it’s also fun getting to know people. And it’s somewhat of a legal requirement, because we have to be careful not to over-serve someone who’s already had too much to drink, which means we are definitely paying attention to how you walk, talk and act.”
Similar to what a waiter first notices about you and what a flight attendant first notices about you, the things a bartender initially notices include your attitude, appearance, way of speaking, knowledge of etiquette rules and other small details. That includes any rude habits you exhibit and even these seemingly polite habits bartenders actually dislike.
We asked Miner and other bartenders to share what they first notice about their customers—and why these observations are important.
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How you walk in
“One of the first things I scan for is how inebriated someone is when they come in,” says Miner. “If you’re disheveled, slurring your words or walking in a strange way, then I’ll likely offer you water or a nonalcoholic drink.” On the other hand, if you walk in confidently (and appear coordinated), then the bartender will feel comfortable serving you.
But it’s not just your status of inebriation they’re noticing. The way you enter a bar and your overall body language can show whether you’re comfortable there and know what you want, or if you might need a drink suggestion or other guidance. “If someone walks in looking confused, I’ll approach them and ask how I can help,” says Miner, “but usually I wait for people to come to me when they’re ready.”
Who you arrive with (or don’t)
Coming in solo versus on a date versus with a large group gives the bartender important intel on you, says Antonio Hernandez, a bartender who works at a speakeasy in Manhattan. For instance, someone on a date will likely order to impress the other person, perhaps buying a more expensive or fancier drink. Whereas a large group of, say, young men, are probably just looking to party and will order rounds of shots. “I like to be prepared with some suggestions, so I always pay attention to who they are with,” he says.
“The hardest is when you see someone who is obviously there to meet a date and the other person never shows,” he adds. “Sometimes I’ll give them one on the house, to try and cheer them up a bit.”
If you order a drink that doesn’t match the style of the bar
Do bartenders judge people on what drink they order? This is often the biggest question customers wonder about. And the answer is … “Absolutely we do. We’re human,” says Miner. “I work at a very high-end bar known for its custom cocktails, and someone comes in and just orders a beer? Why bother?”
On the other end of the spectrum, Mary Joe, a bartender at a sports bar in Minneapolis, says that one of her pet peeves is when a customer comes in and orders a Bloody Mary at 10 p.m. on a Friday. “We have 20 beers on tap and a crowd three deep at the bar, and you want me to slice celery?” she says. “It makes me think the person came to the wrong place or can’t read the room.”
But, reassures Miner, even though they may have opinions about your drink choice and what it reveals about you, they will never say it out loud and will do their best to accommodate any order you make. “At the end of the day, we want you to be happy and comfortable,” she says, “and if it’s a beer you need, then I’ll happily get it for you.”
When you order an obscure drink
“Someone recently ordered a Vieux Carré, a drink that is rarely ordered but I love making,” says Miner. “It made me think the person was well versed in cocktails and was perhaps a bartender themselves. We had a great conversation, and I learned a lot.”
It all comes down to how you ask for a drink like that, though. “People who want to try something new and approach it that way are fun customers and I love working with them,” she says. “But people who act snobby or like they know everything and tell me what to do—they are very hard to work with.”
It’s the difference between saying, “Oh, hey, do you know how to make X drink? I’d love one” and “What, you don’t know how to make X drink?! Why not?” If you’re worried you’ve made a mistake, no biggie—as long as you apologize the right way.
The questions you ask
Most bartenders love talking about their craft and are thrilled to answer questions—as long as they aren’t in the middle of a huge rush. Hernandez says one of the best parts of his job is getting to discuss the finer points of mixology and answer questions about drinks. “It makes me think the person is pretty cool, honestly—a kindred spirit,” he says. “I totally geek out over this stuff, and it’s nice to find people who do too.”
Joe, on the other hand, says that while she’s happy to talk about a lager versus an IPA, don’t ask her questions about cocktails. It all boils down to the setting, and hers is a sports bar. “If someone asks for something fancy, I think they’re trying to show off or they’re not paying attention,” she says. “I just point to the menu and tell them to let me know when they’re ready.” Restaurant workers notice things like this too.
What you’re wearing
It isn’t so much about what you wear as how well it fits the venue, says Hernandez. For instance, a sports jersey, jeans and a hoodie are expected in a sports bar, but they would stick out in a Manhattan speakeasy. All guests are welcome, but people who aren’t following the dress code (even an unspoken one) may need more guidance in what to order, where to sit and what to expect. “I’ll often ask them a few more questions, to figure out what they are looking for,” Hernandez says. “Sometimes it’s just that they’re in the wrong place and need directions to the brewery down the street.”
Another clue clothing gives is money—and the expectations that come up with paying for very expensive alcohol, says Miner. People in expensive clothes (especially shoes, handbags and coats) are often there for the experience as much as the drink. This means they’re more likely to order expensive drinks, expect to be served in a particular way and enjoy hearing things like the year of the wine or the history of the local vintner. These higher expectations mean the bartender may need to give the party extra attention. Thankfully, this often pays off in higher tips as well.
If you order food
Most bars serve at least a small menu of food items, and whether or not you order something to snack on gives the bartender clues about how long you plan on staying, if you’re partying or just grabbing a drink or two, and if you’re socializing or decompressing. “Our pizza is made from scratch and takes at least 45 minutes,” says Joe, “so if someone orders a whole pizza, I know to plan on getting them at least several rounds of drinks.”
Your food order can also be a telltale sign that you’re a foodie. “I love answering questions about wine pairings for certain tapas, or dessert cocktails, as what you drink can really enhance the flavor of the food,” Miner says. If this is something you’re interested in learning more about, a visit to one of the best wineries in the country may be in order.
Where you sit
Do you walk straight to the bar and take a seat? Do you walk to find your group of friends in a booth? Or do you sit solo in the back at a table? Where you choose to sit tells the bartender something about your mood, how social you are feeling and what kind of service you expect, says Joe. “Someone sits right at my bar, I know they want to chat a bit, and if I have time I am happy to,” she says. “Catching up with my regulars is one of the best bits of my job.”
On the other hand, someone who takes a table in the corner and opens up a book likely wants minimal chatter and to be checked in with as little as possible. “I can tell they are there for some peace and quiet and to unwind, so I respect that,” says Miner.
How many napkins you use
“I don’t know why, but it really seems like how many cocktail napkins someone grabs is a real test of their personality, almost like a Buzzfeed quiz,” jokes Hernandez. He explains:
- People who simply accept the napkin given to them with their cocktail are the type to go along, not make waves, and are generally pleasant and not drunk.
- People who ask for an extra napkin or two are a little more particular, both about their drink and hygiene. They will often wipe down their spot at the bar or table and use a discreet dab of hand sanitizer. “They’ll dab their mouth between sips.”
- People who grab the whole stack of napkins off the bar are loud, funny, likely a little drunk and “know they’re probably going to make a mess but at least are planning on cleaning it up.”
Here are more small habits that reveal a lot about your personality.
If you hold your drink or set it down
Walking away from an open drink and then coming back is never a good idea, and bartenders are trained to keep an eye out for the possibility of someone with bad intentions spiking an unattended drink. “I always keep an extra eye on the tipsy gals,” says Joe. “I tell them to just leave their drink on the bar where I can see it if they need to use the bathroom or something.”
The bartender is also watching how others are with your drink. “I try to pay attention if someone is acting sketchy around someone else’s drink,” Hernandez says.
How you close out your tab
People who pay for their whole group and then take care of splitting the check between them are often generous, efficient and thoughtful, according to Hernandez. “That makes our job so much easier,” he says. It’s more common for a tab with multiple people on it to ask to split it evenly among each credit card—which shows fairness and foresight, he says. And, of course, sometimes people will try to figure out the exact amount each person owes, which takes extra time and math skills. But, says Miner, “as long as you aren’t asking us to figure that all out for you during a rush, it’s fine to be frugal about splitting the check.”
How much you tip
Tipping etiquette is confusing under the best of circumstances, but many people get extra confused about whether you should tip your bartender separately from your server and how much to tip. Short answer: Tip your bartender separately if you’re ordering drinks from the bar or sitting at the bar. If your server includes the alcohol on your total bill, it’s fine to tip just once, as most servers tip out a percentage to the bar. Generally speaking, you should tip based on a percentage of the bill, usually 20%.
“The amount you tip tells us how satisfied you were with our service but also tells us something about you—how generous or frugal you are,” says Miner. But, she adds, bartenders don’t generally judge based on the amount of the tip as long as it’s within the normal range of 15% to 25%. “Tipping us 10% or less is almost worse than no tip because it’s a clear sign you were unhappy or angry, and it can feel personal,” she explains. “Tipping us over 25% is an amazing feeling, and we always are so grateful for people who look out for others, especially those of us who depend on tips to make a living wage.”