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What Every 21-Year-Old Guy Needs to Know About How Bars Work

These tips will help you look slightly less like a n00b

On my 21st birthday, my friend Crystal and I high-tailed it over to the nearest dive bar — in Murfreesboro, Tennessee — to claim our free pitcher of Bud Light. We’d been drinking since puberty, so we guzzled our freebie quickly, still prepared to pay for the second round. I reached into my purse and pulled out a sandwich bag full of $5 in pennies we’d scrounged up earlier in the day and proudly slapped it down on the bar. We couldn’t understand why the bartender was so angry. All money spends the same, right? He could’ve kicked us out, but instead he took mercy on us and made us count them out in stacks of 10 to prove it was all there.

The point of this embarrassing gaffe is that it’s not your ability to hold your booze that makes you good at being a bar customer, though that’s certainly important. It’s etiquette around very mundane things like payment, behavior and general decency that prove you’ve graduated to proper drinking adulthood. So I don’t care if you’ve been doing keg stands since you were 13, unless you’ve done your bar homework, it’ll show. Unlike commercials and the movies, you’re not James Bond and, much to everyone’s dismay, this isn’t Road House.

That’s okay, though. Everybody’s gotta learn sometime. A recent Reddit thread reminds us that there’s a first time for everything, and that bars and bar etiquette are confusing and intimidating places for newly minted drinkers. That much is evidenced by a question in r/AskMen, where a soon-to-be-21-year-old asks:

I turn 21 soon. How exactly do bars work and what are the general rules? from AskMen

Joke’s on you, kid: Bars are where you go to make a fool out of yourself on purpose. That’s why they exist! To sit in legally sanctioned places where being foolish is somehow acceptable. Still, bars do have a specific protocol. You pay money to sit in a (hopefully) darkly lit room full of complete strangers where a man or woman behind a counter administers liquid poison in different flavors during a set number of hours. Even though the poison makes you want to act, at best, gleefully idiotic, or at worst, totally aggro, so long as you don’t do anything too stupid or illegal, they’ll let you sit there all night doing this. Oh, and sometimes they serve food.

In the booze ads, it always looks like you’ll be starring in your own personal Disaronno commercial when you go to a bar, partying in full view of a handsome, attentive bartender with your beautiful, diverse friend group, which includes one lady who licks the remaining booze off the ice cubes.

Of course, in reality, bars are weird-ass places full of weird-ass people. Those weirdos come in two types: Event Drinkers and Career Drinkers. In other words, people who are drinking because some circumstantial thing is cause for celebration or mourning, and people who will be there drinking every day no matter what happens, because the thing that happened that made them want to drink is called life. Bars can be lovely places of pleasant decadence, but also bleak, escapist prisons. Usually they’re both simultaneously.

All this is to say that to be let in and allowed to hang around a place where such disparate types commingle freely, all seeking the same salve, requires a kind of unspoken social contract you don’t want to disrupt. It’s been working perfectly well this way for years.

So, particularly for the uninitiated, there are some rules:

Figure Out What Type of Bar You’re Going To 

There’s a bar for every type of scenario, and while younger people tend to like to go bars that are “popping off,” you should think of why you’re going to point the way. First date? Low-key and classy. Drunken rowdiness? Pub. Blind, stupid hookup? Whatever cheesy downtown bar is nearest by. Some bars are for being ignored; others for being seen. Make sure you know the difference.

Drink First

As weird as it is to say out loud, you’re going to a bar to be drunk on purpose with other drunk strangers, so you should go a little buzzed. Pre-game as you would for any other night out to any other social event, by knocking back one or two beers or shots beforehand. Don’t get drunk! Just get a little looser and more confident so you don’t seem so awkward. This is also cheaper: Bar drinks are triple what’d they be at home, but hey, you wanted to drink with people!

Take Some Cash

Some bars (the busy popular ones) tend to be hell to get service, and extra hell to close your tab to leave when you’re ready to split. For this reason, until you know a bar well enough to figure out its rhythm, having some cash on hand is a pro move (Technically, it’s always a pro move). Also, believe it or not, some bars are still cash only.

But Be Ready to Put a Card on File

If you’re not holding either cash or a card in hand, a bartender is going to ask you for payment. Usually you give them a card at the beginning of the night and don’t get it back until the end. That way you can’t stiff them. And if you leave the card there, they can charge you a fee for that. They’ll inquire as to your preference by asking if you want to close it or keep it open. If you’re having more than one drink, keep it open, or risk being the guy that runs a card through to completion for every single drink (i.e., an asshole). Occasionally, bars will just run your card for an authorization and hand it back to you right there, but they will make it clear that they’ll hand it right back to you as soon as they do. 

How to Order

Walk up to the bar, wave a $20 around, and if the bartender doesn’t notice, start tapping the bar impatiently and yell, “Hey asshole! Over here!”

Kidding, only do that if you want to be ignored or kicked out.

“Don’t wave at people,” Haley Hamilton, MEL’s resident bartending guru, told me by email. “We know you’re there. Like, really, really, know you’re there. No amount of card or money waving will make me tend to you faster, in fact the opposite is likely true.”

Also, bring ID, and don’t act all offended about it. “Have your fucking ID ready,” Hamilton adds. “The people who roll their eyes and complain about being carded are always under 24 and it makes me see red. You’re literally barely legal. Expect to get carded.”

What to Order

Bars are known for certain things: Cocktails, wine, craft beer, or whatever weird shit they want to serve. (I once went to a Charles Bukowski-themed bar that didn’t actually serve liquor!) It’s a great idea to know what the bar is known for so you can pick a drink they’ll have. This also ensures you drink things you actually like, instead of getting stuck with bad cocktails when you’re a beer person, as a commenter on the Reddit thread pointed out.

It’s okay if you don’t know any of this though. Plenty of us roll up on bars with no planning and figure out what they have once we’re there. And that’s okay, too. Just don’t waste the bartender’s time figuring this out. Don’t approach the bar and get the bartender’s attention while you stand there deciding. They hate that. Just hang back until you know. However, it’s okay to ask for some suggestions or guidance, but make sure you’re aware of how busy it is before you suck up a bartender’s time.

“If he’s new to a bar and has no idea what to order, tell his bartender that,” Hamilton says. “As long as it’s not 11pm on a Friday and it’s fucking chaos, we want to help you figure out what you’d like. I love it when people are up-front with me and say, ‘Hi, I’m new to this cocktail thing, can you help me out?’ Good bartenders will be able to help you work through their house menu and suggest things off-menu that sound like they’d suit a guest’s tastes.”

To that point, though, Hamilton says to read the menu first. “We give you one for a reason,” she writes. “Also, tap handles are designed to be eye-catching and fairly informative. Please don’t ask me what’s on draft when there’s literally a billboard with the information in front of you.”

How to Drink Your Drinks

Before most of us are old enough to go into a bar, we’ve had plenty of experience drinking, but not in a bar-like setting, and it’s different. My friend and I slammed our pitcher because we were used to drinking covertly, and as quickly as possible to get drunk so we could attend a show or event where we wouldn’t be able to sit around and drink like civilized adults. But now is the time to relax and take your time drinking, because you can actually sit around drinking in a public place.

“Drinking in bars is (or should be, anyway) different than drinking in your friend’s basement: you’re going out for drinks, not hanging out to get wasted,” Hamilton says. “Don’t be that guy that pounds a Manhattan like it’s a shot. It’s okay to drink slowly. It’s also okay go to a bar alone, with a book. Some of my favorite bar guests are the folks who come in and have a glass of wine while they read.”

$1 a Drink? Not Anymore

Make sure you tip. They’ll probably remember if you don’t. Tip well if you can. They’ll probably remember if you do. I made sure to tip well at my neighborhood bar and in no time I was getting free drinks.

“The $1 a drink rule doesn’t work anymore,” she says. “Beer, wine, a single pour of something, sure, maybe. But $1 on a cocktail is infuriating; especially if it’s a round of, say, four $10 drinks. Tips ought to be 20 percent of the bill.”

When to Leave

If you’ve managed to spend your evening at a bar not being a jerk, then don’t muck it up by closing the place down. These people want to go home. So tie one on and enjoy yourself, and then clear out like a decent, respectable drinking adult.