Everybody ends up at a bar at some point or another: to grab a quick drink, to celebrate a new job, to watch a sporting event, or to stumble through a Tinder date. But there’s a marked difference between going to bars sometimes and inhabiting the delicate balance of being a bar regular, a fine line that separates the rookie from the pro, the drinker from the friend, the boozer from the bar fly. Becoming a regular requires a consistent, polite, easygoing temperament to win the hearts and minds of bartenders, and reap untold rewards in the form of faster service, free drinks and general respect.
The New York Times recently wrote a piece on how to get and keep a bartender’s attention. In it, Alan Yuhas advises on the myriad ways to endear a bartender to your particular plight of needing social lubricant, with tips that range from not pulling dick behavior like expecting free drinks, waving around a $20 to get faster attention, or ordering labor-intensive cocktails (mojitos, anyone?) when the bar customers are packed like sardines.
But we were most interested in Yuhas’ section on “good bar citizenship,” which offers a couple of tips on what it takes to be a good bar regular. Anyone with a local bar in stumbling distance knows that showing your face a few times a week to the same people is a tricky business. After all, they know who you are, what you drink, and what you tip.
Yuhas deduces from talking to seasoned bartenders that the crux of this art form is actually pretty simple: It’s just being a friendly person. Pitch in if the bar is littered with empty glasses, a bartender tells him. Make conversation, but don’t treat the bartender like a therapist, another suggests. Tip well — that means, bare minimum, $1 for a beer or wine; $2 for a cocktail.
But, we politely assert, there’s a bit more to remaining welcome in a space filled with soused-up assholes ready to assert their power, throw down, or get frisky in a public space.
In order to get the primo service at your local watering hole, you must adopt the bulletproof low-maintenance of someone who needs little, understands the natural order of things, and respects the vibe. So we asked a few bartenders to elaborate precisely on what makes a good regular at a bar, and the dos and don’ts that are typical of all great repeat customers.
Respect the Rush
Anyone with sense will realize they won’t get immediate service on a Friday night with a line out the street. But good regulars never overburden their bartenders. “Regulars I love know what to order — and what not to order — when it’s busy,” bartender and MEL contributor Haley Hamilton, who wrote the Gentleman’s Guide to Paying a Bar Tab, told me. “If I made them this crazy amazing cocktail one time when they came in at midnight on a Monday and it was dead, they know not to ask for it next time they come in at 8 p.m. on a Friday when we’re slammed.”
Order Like a Pro
It’s not just how you order, but also what you order. “Ordering sweet, garbage cocktails like Long Island Ice Teas and asking them to be ‘top shelf’” is one rookie giveaway,” former bartender Matt Bell, who now manages Nashville venue Mercy Lounge, tells me. “As if you can tell the difference, or as if the spirit upgrade has any bearing on the inevitable hangover from drinking liquor mixed with a cup of sugar.”
That said, how you order is also a clear tell on whether you’re worthy of regular status. “Pro drinkers know what they want, wait patiently and have their payment method ready,” Bell says.
“We’re loud, so there’s not a lot of the typical small talk that neighborhood bars have,” he adds. But regulars know what not to do when ordering. That includes what Bell describes as “obvious amateurish behavior” like “waving cash, ordering drinks and turning around to talk to someone, not knowing what you want when the bar is busy, wet bills, and asking for drinks to be strong, and saying you’re going to ‘hook them up’ with a tip at the end of the night.”
Don’t Embarrass Yourself
It goes without saying that cherished regulars aren’t drama queens, but let’s say it anyway: If you’re the sort of person who gets in fights, easily dissolves into sobbing or stirs up shit, no bartender is going to treat you like a regular, just a drunk they’re ready to call security on when you cross the line.
Always. While that’s bare minimum for intermittent bar-going, regulars tend to get slipped free drinks enough that overtipping by normal standards becomes commonplace. That means when your bartender doesn’t charge you for the first drink, you make up for it in a tip and don’t make a big show of it. “Tip a minimum of 30 percent,” bartender Brandy Flowers, who’s been manning the oak at 3 Crow Bar in Nashville for nearly a decade, tells me.
Know When to Split
Good bar regulars “don’t outstay their welcome,” Hamilton told me. “When the lights come up and the music goes off, unless you work there or you’re fucking someone who does, it doesn’t matter how much time or money you spend there. GTFO.” Honoring such boundaries means you’re more likely to be let in a few minutes early when the bar’s not even set up, and less likely to be hassled at last call.
Good regulars are polite and considerate enough to maintain a friendly but professional rapport. “They ask about you, too,” Hamilton said. I’d take this one step further to include that you don’t overburden your bartenders with your shitty life story. Sure, you’re going to talk honestly about your life, just as they might, with repeated exposure and something like actual friendship developing. I’m a regular enough at a few local bars that I can show them a picture of my kid, but I also remember when a bartender is finishing up a master’s, or just got back from a vacation in France, and I remember to ask.
This still requires the emotional and social intelligence to understand that they have a job to do, and have other customers to attend to, and shouldn’t have to spend the entire shift listening to you gripe about a romantic rejection or a lost promotion.
Don’t Get Wasted
“A good bar regular usually handles their booze,” Flowers tells me. If you don’t, you’re not a regular—you’re a problem.
Don’t Start Shit
Flowers says the lack of drama is also a recurring theme in the good regular. “They treat the bar with respect,” she says. “Almost as if it is their home. They are the type of people you look forward to seeing, and become like family. They know the rules and follow them. They don’t start problems.” Because of this, you earn the bartender’s trust, so when shit isn’t going right or the pour is bad, they believe you. “If they ever complain,” Flowers adds, “you best be assured that it’s valid; a bartender can trust them.”
Don’t Mack on Your Bartender
While male bartenders get their fair share of come-ons, women bartenders are far more likely to get male patrons who mistake their friendliness for sexual interest. Hamilton says good regulars crucially never confuse this boundary, and it makes all the difference.
“Not hitting on me when I’m clearly not interested transports you from ‘a guy who sits at my bar all the time’ to a regular,” Hamilton says. “Regulars either know me well enough to know I’m not interested, or know enough about bars in general to not ask me out.”