Brian Flanagan may be one of the best bartenders we could hope to be served by, if nothing by reputation alone. Unfortunately, especially for the women reading this, it won’t ever happen because he came and went in a two-hour period back in 1988. If you’re still drawing blanks, Brian (a.k.a. Tom Cruise) was the dark-haired, smooth-talking server of Cocktail. While we may hope to be wooed by a bottle-flipping entertainer with flare behind the bar, chances are we’re getting the average server who may put gin in a rum drink every now and then. This begs to question how do we judge our bartenders, and how do we decide what to tip?
One thing remains the same in relation to tipping in a restaurant and a bar: you must do it. After this, the game changes based on a few things. I don’t see tipping a bartender as simple as a percentage, but more of an evaluation of the actual time and service they spend on you. Standing at the bar for ten minutes to order a couple beers and walk away warrants a different gratuity in my mind than sitting belly-up and befriending your local server. Let’s discuss the two situations…
The moment you walk through the door, or even at the time when you decide what bar you’re heading to, you will know the atmosphere you’ll be in. These surroundings (music, crowd, staff, etc) can and will play into the type of relationship you will have with your bartenders that evening. It may sound like I look too deep into this, and maybe I do, but it’s worth contemplating. If the music isn’t ear-piercing, the crowd is thin enough to move directly to the bar, and the bartender greets you – this is when you know you’ll most likely have more invested into the relationship that ensues, which involves various amounts of alcohol and banter. If there are dice involved, a good conversation, or a bartender can start to refill your drink without you asking, this deserves a notable tip because of the excellent service.
On the other hand, a packed house with music at yelling volume will create a different experience. Weaving through tipsy customers to finally stand three deep at the bar, wave your money, and spill a drop or two on surrounding shoulders as you pull your drinks back hardly requires the same tip as the previous example. In these situations, watch the bartender’s ability to take numerous orders at once, or how he/she scans the crowd for buyers – tipping on actual skill of service, and not just friendliness, is always OK.
These are just a couple examples of how loose rules are in place for tipping bartenders. A great suggestion is to buy in rounds, not in single drinks, that way tipping is an easier task than figuring out what one beer deserves. Keep in mind that half the time bartenders won’t see you throw that dollar back up on the bar, especially when it’s a packed Saturday night, so don’t take it personally.
We may tip a bartender because of good looks, we were served a stiff drink, or because he/she had some part in making our night more enjoyable. The bottom line is to tip regardless, but don’t put too much thought into it. Throw percentages out the window and tip whenever, and whatever amount feels right. When all else fails, take my favorite route: start a tab and tip on one final bill at the end. This way you can create the bill-pay experience of a restaurant, and finding that magical number may be easier for you in the end.