If you like free drinks, bigger pours, and a Cheers-like place “where everybody knows your name,” you need to become a regular at your favorite bar.
To be fair, this blog post owes its roots to eGullet, where threads such as Restaurants Where It’s Most Worth Being A Regular had me thinking about how to apply this to cocktail culture long ago. (For a more polished version of how to become a restaurant regular, check out Steven Shaw’s insightful book, Turning the Tables, which is now out in paperback.)
So how do you stand out from the faceless masses on the other side of the bar? Here’s how:
1. Show up early – or late. Showing up at peak hours when the bartenders are in the weeds means you’re just another drink to hustle off the bar. Drop by when the bartenders aren’t rushed and have time to chat (but not the very end of the night when they wish you’d just go home already so they can close up shop).
Since peak hours are different at every bar, you’ll need to gauge whether to hang after the post-work crowd has dissipated, or whether to show up before the late-evening bar-hopping has begun. Alternatively, stop in for a drink on a slow night, like a Monday or Tuesday if the bar’s not dark.
2. Order a memorable drink. That doesn’t mean obnoxiously complicated, and if you walk into a beer-soaked Irish pub and ask for an historically accurate Brandy Crusta, you’re gonna get what you deserve. Examine the cocktail menu (if there is one), the drinks board, or the back bar, and make your first drink something normal. For your second drink (or if you’ve been there before, your second visit), order something a little more interesting.
For example, on one recent visit to my local I asked the bartender…tentatively…if he could make a French 75. Depending on his response, I was prepared to backpedal and order something off the drink board, or walk him through how to make the drink (I saw he had all the ingredients – cognac, lemon juice, sugar, champagne).
Turned out, I’d read him right and he was a cocktail geek like me. He cracked a big grin, called over a colleague for a lively consult about the right proportions for the drink, and never even turned to a book for guidance. Not only was it a great drink and conversation starter, the barfly sitting a few stools over saw how much I was enjoying my drink, pushed his beer aside and ordered the same! You better believe that bartender smiled and waved the next time I walked in.
3. Take time to chat. You don’t need to have a deep, meaningful discussion (and if you’re having a lousy day, skip this step, no one wants to banter with a surly customer). But a smile and a little small talk goes a long way toward engaging the guy behind the stick. One of my favorite conversation starters is to ask about an unusual bottle, or an ingredient in a drink, which sometimes prompts the bartender to offer a small sample to try. Be genuine, friendly, and not too personal (I really do want to know more about that weird-looking liqueur!) And see tip #1 – if the bartender is too busy to talk, don’t take it personally.
4. Enjoy your drink. If you like it, tell the person who made it just for you! Everyone likes a compliment. And if you don’t like it, don’t lie. During one recent outing, the bartender couldn’t help noticing that I was frowning at my undrinkable bourbon bomb.
“How’s your drink?”
“I’m sorry, but it’s just too strong for me.”
He didn’t need even 2 seconds to think; I think he knew the drink was bad, and in fact that the entire menu was bad. “We have some new drinks coming on the menu soon, and they’re a bit lighter. Would you like to try one? It’s on the house.”
Of course I said yes – and you know what? It was fabulous, a mix of citrus vodka, pineapple, crushed mint, and…what’s that?…Assam tea. Not only did I tell all my friends about the great drink I’d had, I came back a couple of weeks later and was delighted to see the drink on the menu (and the bourbon bomb GONE!) And the bartender recognized me, and came over to say hello.
5. Remember good things come in threes. If you really want a bartender to remember you, show up at the bar three times in the space of a couple of weeks (not every day – unless you want to be remembered as someone who clearly has no life!). And show up alone or with just one or two friends, not a big crowd. After you get to know the house and vice versa, you can show up with your 10 best friends and be a big shot. But for now, keep it intimate.
6. Tip well. You don’t have to be Rockefeller, but add an extra dollar or two on the pile. Cash is best for this. Think about how you would want to be treated if it were you behind the bar. The goal is to show your appreciation for good service and a good drink, not to be a show-off. And if your bartender comps you a drink, tip as if you had paid for it anyway!