If you’ve ever had a thirst and set out to quench it at a fine (or less than fine) drinking establishment, you’ve likely had a thing for a bartender, or at least found yourself in the company of some drunk idiot sweating over the person behind the stick.
Falling for the bartender is a cliché at this point, an age-old phenomenon that’s persisted ever since those first few restless, horny monks decided to pitch their foul buckets of fermented barley and defect from the compound in search of boozy offerings from a less holy hand. It isn’t hard to see the appeal of the poised individual pouring out the booze — and why watching them do their thing, and do it well, would attract admirers.
Film and TV have long made the case for the cachet of bartenders, and surely, those on-screen impressions have informed our real-life perceptions of the people who make the drinks. Maybe you saw Cocktail at an impressionable age. Maybe you soaked up the vibe vicariously through Seth — and Marissa — when cool girl Bait Shop bartender Alex Kelly deigned to give them the time of day on The O.C. Or maybe, ever since that scene in The Shining, you’ve been after a Lloyd of your very own (kidding!).
But really, spend enough time seeking a buzz at any dimly lit haunt and you’ll catch feelings — of admiration, at the very least. (The exception would be if you’re a fucking lizard, the type of person who believes that an Ivy League degree automatically makes a person superior to someone who works in the service industry.) The experience of sitting at the bar while an attractive human makes eye contact, asks you what you’d like, then whips up a tasty intoxicant and hands it right to you, is equivalent to falling for a literal thirst trap, and we’ve all been willing victims.
Meredith Goldstein, Love Letters columnist at The Boston Globe and author of Can’t Help Myself: Lessons & Confessions From a Modern Advice Columnist, agrees that liking the bartender has long been a thing, a predicament she’s been consulted on countless occasions, whether by friends or strangers writing in to the column, wondering how to tell if their bartender crush is actually into them or just flirting for tips. Beyond a bartender’s timeless charm or cool factor, Goldstein believes that a more current reason people get starry-eyed for their local drink-slinger is because so many of us these days are starved for IRL human interaction.
“You might go a whole day only engaging with your own friends online,” Goldstein tells me. “It can be common to go long stretches of time without someone smiling at you and asking you what you want. [The bar] might be one of the few places in life where we still have that kind of exchange.”
It can be easy to confuse this one-on-one attention — especially when we’re so desperate for it — for romantic interest. As Goldstein puts it, “There’s something weirdly and wildly intimate about looking in someone’s face, asking for something and the person giving it to you.” In some cases, the bartender doesn’t even have to be flirty or friendly to win your affection; they just have to be there. In a recent ode to the Brooklyn dive bar Sharlene’s in Punch Magazine, author Meredith Clark waxes sentimental about how a certain subset of NYC media takes comfort in routinely getting negged by the joint’s “surly bartender,” whom she describes as ”possibly one of the last in a distinguished line of drink-slingers who don’t give a damn about you.”
The commanding presence and the finesse of the person holding it down behind the bar, coupled with the fact that they control the means of intoxication — whether they’re laboring over bespoke cocktails or just cracking open tall boys — certainly gives the bartender, nice or not, power over the thirsty masses. “People think a bartender is working some kind of magic,” says my friend Cody, who bartends in Manhattan. “To me, it’s a role to play.” He admits he, too, falls under the spell when he’s on the other side of the bar: “I’m even charmed by my bartender friends.”
Are we, though, fetishizing bartenders by sexualizing them? The power dynamic shifts when patrons command “dance monkey dance,” or expect a certain treatment in exchange for tips.
When I ask Henry, my bartending friend (yes, like the Liz Phair song “Polyester Bride”), he agrees that there’s an element of fetishization going on. He says that when he was single tending bar, he’d get hit on by women, for whom he could tell “it was mostly like checking off a list type of thing — like hooking up with a rockstar or something (not that being a bartender is anywhere on the same level), but it’s that casual-adventurous vibe.” He adds he didn’t mind the attention, “partially because I’m easily flattered but also because I was always aware of [the dynamic], so if I decided to go further, I knew where it was going and what it was.” Essentially, he understood and accepted that he “was a character in their world.”
“For me, flirting with bartenders is a comfortable default simply because it feels familiar, like muscle memory, after a decade of bartending,” Brandy Jensen, the Dear Fuck-Up columnist for The Outline, writes via email when I ask her to extrapolate on the above tweet. As someone who’s been on both sides of the bar, Jensen offers a few rules for how to avoid disaster when attempting conquest:
- “Don’t try to fuck your regular bartender (tainting that relationship by either succeeding or failing in the attempt is never worth it if you really like the bar).”
- “You have to put in some ground game, which means multiple visits.”
- “If it’s a busy night, just order your damn drink and get out of the way.”
- “If they haven’t comped you a drink, you don’t have a chance in hell.”
Liz, a 30-year-old who bartended at The Whiskey in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, among other bars and restaurants in New York City, tells me that “most of the time, people understand that flirting is part of the transaction and that’s it. When done well, it’s a hilarious, mutually respectful dance: We’re both getting attention if you’re not being a creep about it. In a perfect world, your bartender is an object, but only in this four-wall fantasy.”
If you do want to explore the fantasy outside of the bar, Liz says the easiest, least messy way is to leave your number, and “if they don’t call you, you drop it entirely.” But similar to Henry, Liz welcomes the occasional, lowkey flirty attention. “Bartenders don’t judge you for finding us attractive. You leaving me your number, to some extent, means I did my job,” she says.
Of course, that does come with an unseen cost. In particular, Liz says emotional labor is a serious occupational hazard — “being expected to take on people’s emotions or bad attitudes in the name of service.” And that burden may fall more heavily if you’re female, or female-identifying, behind the bar — case in point, this guy who thinks it would be a great idea for Hooters employees to serve as de facto therapists, or as he calls it, “problem listeners.”
As far as fielding harassment, Liz says it’s easier to manage bad behavior when you’re bartending compared to waiting tables — to say, “‘Hey, I don’t answer to baby’” — and that she “found a level of authority behind the bar that didn’t exist on the floor, even though I’m 5-foot-2 and look about 12 years old, even though I’m 30.”
“If they don’t play nice, you don’t serve them,” she continues, adding that she’s always felt “super supported” by management. One customer at The Whiskey committed a series of transgressions: rudely waving his hand in her face to get her attention; grabbing her hand and kissing it when he went to pay; and then writing “fuck you” on the credit card tip line. But the second she explained the situation and showed the receipt to her manager, the customer was “kicked out, no question.”
Katharine Heller, a former bartender and host of the podcast, Tell the Bartender, shares Liz’s experience of feeling more in control behind the bar than on the floor. “I started bartending during the day and cocktail waitressing at night in the same venue, and the second I walked out from behind the bar and took orders, I was treated like crap. It was astounding. Behind the bar, people treated me like I was a goddess,” she writes over email.
But Heller has dealt with garden variety harassment while bartending, too. “One time a customer (who was the only one there) told me he saw my bra strap the night before and masturbated to it. I was molested as a kid, so therapy has taught me to advocate for myself. I took the money he gave me for his drinks, slid it back and said, ‘You’re making me uncomfortable, and I’d like you to leave. Here’s the money for your drinks. Please don’t ever come back.’”
Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common outcome of the bartender fetish. Or more likely, the end result is a combination of assholes taking things too far and the lovelorn pining for something that’s nothing more than a performative act meant to either extract a larger tip or simply constitutes a job well done. Every so often, though, crushing on the bartender is more than just a fantasy. Henry, for one, met his current girlfriend at the bar. She and her friends came in for brunch drinks, they talked for a while and he bought her a shot. When she returned later by herself, they had a post-shift drink together, he asked for her number and “the rest is history.”
Liz, too, met her current girlfriend at the bar. The night she came in, they flirted, ended up hanging out for a post-shift drink, then going home together. They’re still together two years later.