People have been getting into fights in bars for as long as people have been drinking in bars. After all, alcohol alters your perception of the world around you (which is largely why we drink it in the first place), and sometimes that booze-filter magnifies a perceived insult into the worst thing someone’s ever said to you, or turns a friendly poke in the ribs to someone trying to hit on your date.
In the most quintessential of bar-fighting days, those of the Old West, the proximity to violence was one of the main reasons why women weren’t allowed to patronize saloons (you could be a working gal — either as a hired entertainer or a prostitute — but you weren’t likely to be served if you walked in just looking for a drink). And so, the gunslinging, table-flipping fights in the movies aren’t all that far from the truth. In fact, bar keeps were at least as well-armed as their clientele.
These days, though, things are far more peaceful — at least behind the bar. Personally, I’ve yet to see or hear of a bar program that trains their staff how to handle a fight, if it were to occur. But that doesn’t mean fights don’t happen. Here then are the most memorable brawls (or almost brawls) I’ve encountered in my years of tending bar…
If I were to write down every time someone at the bar looked like they wanted to hit me, we’d be here all day. People, particularly men, don’t like being told they’re being cut off, that they can’t have another drink and that no tip — however large — is going to make me ignore the fact that they’re too hammered for another beer. But I don’t often get daggers thrown at me before I’ve served someone.
A year or two ago, though, toward the end of a quiet weekday night, two men in suits took a couple of bar stools before me. “Hi, gentlemen, how are you?” I said, walking over with menus.
“Fucking great, how are you?” one of them snarled.
Well, this ought to be fun, I thought. I’ve been bartending long enough to know when someone is going to be a true problem, or if they’re just an asshole. These two straddled that line, but I needed more information before I could decide not to serve them. “Sorry to hear that. Let’s see if a drink can make you feel better?” I said, pouring water.
“Yeah, let me get a Jimador. On the rocks,” the other guy ordered.
I turned to our tequila shelf, knowing we didn’t carry that brand, but checking, just in case one magically had sprung up over the course of the evening (because no one wants to say, “We don’t have that” when, in fact, for this one time only, we do).
“Jesus Christ, it’s a tequila — you gonna get it or not?” Tequila Guy demanded.
I froze with my back toward them so that the angry contortions my face was making would be hidden from view. “I know it’s a tequila,” I responded once I’d composed myself. “We don’t carry that one. What else could I get for you?”
“Oh,” he said, seemingly humbled. “Just a reposado. Whatever you have, on the rocks.”
“You got it. What would you like?” I asked his friend.
“How about you pinot noir, you got that?”
“I sure do,” I responded with as much of a Malibu Barbie smile as I could muster.
I poured the tequila, got the wine glass, set the drink in front of Tequila Guy and the empty glass in front of Pinot Dude and ducked out the the side of the bar to get an unopened bottle of pinot because I could tell the one I had open didn’t have a full glass in it.
But when I got back — wine key in hand, corkscrew inserted into cork — Pinot Dude lost it: “You gonna pour my fucking drink or not?!” I stopped before stepping as close to him as the bar would allow, and said, as clearly as possible: “I don’t know what your problem is, but if you actually want this drink, you’ll stop talking to me that way. I’m opening a new bottle of wine. You still want a glass? Or should I just get your check?”
He was too stunned to answer. He looked at his friend, who, in turn, looked at me.
“I’m sorry; we’re sorry. We just came from a funeral,” Tequila Guy said sheepishly.
“But I shouldn’t be taking any of that out on you. I’m sorry, you’re right,” Pinot Dude quickly added.
I didn’t know what was more shocking — that these guys had just come from spending all day with a grieving family or that they had apologized for being assholes. “I’m real sorry to hear that,” I said, pouring a glass of the newly opened wine. “If you guys need anything else let me know. First round’s on me.”
They were the last to leave.
We shook hands on their way out.
Not all heroes wear capes, and not all aggressive bar guests are dudes.
We were busy, like four bartenders busy, when I saw this small, blonde woman ordering two shots of tequila. I was pretty sure she didn’t plan on sharing. Sneaky, I thought. Smart, but sneaky. I watched her walk away for a few seconds, and sure enough, once she was out of sight of the bar, she knocked them both back — one right after the other.
I lost track of her for a bit, but what couldn’t have been too much later, I needed a bottle from our storage shelves on the other side of the bar — the side this woman was now sitting at, deep in an emotionally wrought conversation with the poor couple who’d ended up sitting next to her. I flagged down a coworker: “How many times have you served her?” I said, glancing in the blonde’s direction.
“Oh, that was her third round,” my coworker said.
“You know she was taking both of those shots, right?”
His eyes widened. “Oh fuck…”
As if on cue, Tequila Blonde burst into tears.
My coworkers all froze. I sighed. “I got this,” I said, shoving the bottle I’d come over to fetch into one of their hands and sending them to man my section of the bar. I walked over to the now Sobbing Tequila Blonde. “Hey, lady, it’s okay,” I comforted. “Come with me, and let’s talk outside, okay?”
“But my friend’s here!” she wailed.
Safe to say, her friend was nowhere in sight. “Okay, well do you see her, your friend? Cuz I can’t have you crying at the bar, you know?”
We made our way outside and stood in the empty patio-like area. Over the course of the next few minutes, I get all of it: Where she’s from (California); why she’s here (visiting friends); who her friend is (maybe from college?); something about an ex-boyfriend (perhaps an awkward threesome with said friend?). “Everything’s awful but you’re an angel,” she concluded, looking at me.
“That’s nice of you. Everything’s gonna be okay. But let’s get you home. Can you tell me where you live? Do you use Lyft?”
I’m half a beat away from flagging down a cab and paying for it myself when The Friend, who I’d long since stopped believing existed, appeared behind her. “Oh my gosh, look!” I told her. “Your friend’s here!”
“You got this?” I asked The Friend, who is staring at the tear-streaked, snot-leaking blonde with the look of someone who’s trying to sneak past a sleeping lion.
“Oh yeah,” she responded hesitantly. “Totally.”
At which point Sobbing Tequila Blonde took both my hands, which she’d been clutching throughout the entire saga, and pushed me away from her, hard enough that I took a few steps backward, almost colliding with the brick column behind me. “Fuck you, you fucking bitch!!!” she screamed.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry!” The Friend yelled.
I took a deep breath and looked past them, into the window of the bar. By now the bar team was utterly fucked, having been down a bartender for the past several minutes. “It’s fine,” I said. “But if you have a tab open inside, you need to close it, because she’s not coming back in.”
“Bitch!” Tequila Blonde offered a second time.
“Yeah, well, have a great night,” I said, walking past them and making sure to stop by the front door and tell our door guy that under no circumstances was Tequila Blonde allowed back in the building. He smiled and nodded. Because this bitch knew that he liked having a reason to keep people out — and that he never forgot a face.
Sometimes there’s a situation that’s totally out of your hands. For example: Almost three years ago, I was working at a place that planned to close early on Thanksgiving. Where we’d normally be open till 2 a.m., with the kitchen open until 10 p.m. on a Thursday night, we were scheduled to close the whole restaurant at 11 p.m. That is, until one of the owners showed up with four of his friends at quarter to 11 and expected us to stay open until they were ready to leave. Needless to say, everyone was super frustrated.
But then, one of the owner’s friends decided that another man at the bar, who, yes, was kind of drunk and moderately eccentric, needed to be taken out of the restaurant — by force. My coworker, Luke, was trying to talk to the drunk dude in an attempt to get him to move outside where a better conversation about him leaving could take place, when the friend came behind said drunk dude, put him in a headlock, dragged him to the side door and flung him onto the sidewalk.
When he came back inside, patting himself on the back for a job well done, I locked eyes with Luke: “Holy shit, we can’t let them stay after that,” the look said.
“Yeah,” his eyes returned, “but how the fuck do we get them to leave?”
Back behind the bar, Luke and I poured shots for everyone still inside. We’d done last call a few minutes before Owner Squad walked in, but now we had to awkwardly explain both why we were no longer closing and why the man who’d just instigated an altercation wasn’t being ejected from the premises. I don’t remember exactly how the rest of the evening went — partly because I was seething at the abuse of power we’d just witnessed, partly because I’d helped myself to a coffee cup’s worth of something top shelf to calm down.
I do know, though, that by the time Owner Squad left and we’d closed up, we barely made last call at the bar around the corner.
So much for an early night.
My very first bar fight was also the most violent. I was 23 and had been behind the bar a little over a year. It was shaping up to be a reasonable Thursday night, even though it was slow enough that my coworker, Nick, had clocked out and sat down on the other side of the bar with a beer. I was stacking pint glasses on the shelves near the taps, looking around to see what I could get a head start on cleaning. Last call wouldn’t be until 1:45 a.m. — roughly another three hours — but it didn’t hurt to get started early.
It was cooler out, so Nick was wearing his full winter beard and a blue-striped scarf, and a few people were out on the patio smoking cigarettes. There were six or seven people seated at tables, and one of my regulars (Dave) and my boyfriend at the time (Jason), were at the bar. When Nick had almost finished his beer, the door banged open and two couples walked in. “Hey folks, how you doing?” I said. Nobody responded. Nick and I exchanged a look. My hackles were up, and I knew his were, too.
“Can we get some beers? Four PBR?” one of the guys asked.
“Sure thing,” I answered as I turned to open the reach-in and dig out four PBR tall boys. The second my hand wrapped around the first can, I heard Jason say, “Hey, nice shoes,” to one of the men. A second later, I heard the sharp thwack of the side of Jason’s face hitting the top of the bar.
There’s a moment right before all hell breaks loose in a bar — be it a tray of broken glasses, a pub crawl strolling through the doors, or you know, a fight — when everything around you grinds to a halt. Your feet and your heart stop. And all sound is sucked out of the room — the murmur of conversation at nearby tables; the music spinning from the restaurant’s score of speakers; the clanging of pots and pans from the kitchen; and even the chatter inside your head.
When it breaks, however, the next thing you hear is very, very loud. In this case, it was the two girls screaming — accompanied by the sounds of one of the guys shouting into Nick’s face, and occasionally punching his chest. Nick, hands up, was trying to talk the guy down: He knew better than to swing back as an employee.
The phone for the bar was in the kitchen, sectioned off by a swinging door. I flew through it, and dialed 911. (I couldn’t tell you why I didn’t use my cell phone.) I was, shit you not, sent through a series of automated prompts: Press 1 if this is a medical emergency; press 2 if you are in need of police response…
When I stepped back through the kitchen door, Nick was backed into a corner; Dave was on the ground; and the man not throwing his fists into Nick had a chair from one of the tables over his head and was about to throw it onto Dave. Something came out of my mouth. I don’t know if it was a scream, a cry or maybe just a shout of “What the fuck number do you hit for bar fight?!?!” into the phone. Whatever it was, as quick as it had all started, it stopped. The four of them all ran for the door, got in a car and sped down the street.
A new kind of silence — one you could reach out and touch — had overtaken the room. “Is everyone okay?” I asked, shakily, walking over to Jason, who was helping Dave up off the floor.
“That was insane, what even happened?” one woman, sitting at a table opposite the bar, asked.
“I’m not… I don’t really know,” was all I could muster.
When I turned back to the bar, Nick was pouring shots of bourbon for everyone.
“Can I have a cigarette?” I asked him.
I walked out the back door and down the small flight of stairs that led into the bar’s patio. I was shocked to find a few people still standing out there. I’d forgotten all about them.
We looked at each other for a second.
“Things okay?” one asked me.
“Yeah,” I said, my shaking hands struggling to light the cigarette Nick had given me. “Yeah, things are okay. I’m just gonna… I’m just gonna take a minute. So uh, if you need anything, you’re just… Uh, sorry, man, you’re just gonna have to wait.”