What Makes Good Hospitality In Bars?

Who really reigns supreme at the bar, bartender or guest? (Photo: aloha75/Flickr.)

by Jeffrey Morgenthaler

Jeffrey Morgenthaler is Food Republic’s contributing cocktail editor and the author of the column Easy Drinking. He currently manages the bars Clyde Common and Pépé Le Moko in Portland, Oregon, and is the author of The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique.

With very few exceptions, written discussions about hospitality in bars are always, always, always limited to one of two takes on the subject. First, you have the option of reading a diatribe written by someone so jaded from years behind the bar that you’re forced to suffer through yet another “This New York Club Bartender Spills the Dos and Don’ts of Drinking in Bars.” It’s always a list, and it’s always designed to suck all of the fun out of having a drink with friends. Wait your turn. Have your order ready. Tip generously. The kind of bullshit list that should probably be handed to every incoming Boston college student, but totally worthless to the rest of us who don’t spend all of our time drinking in clubs or sports bars.

The other option we’re handed on a regular basis is a gentle circle jerk with extra lotion, all about the poetry of service, the divine blessing of welcoming challenging guests and a sort of soft one-upmanship about how my own brand of service is kinder, gentler and more accommodating than yours. This option is handed down to you from on high by a third-tier brand ambassador, fresh off their two-year craft cocktail bartending career.

My purpose in bringing this up is that these two points of view are entirely predicated on a one-sided idea of who’s in charge of everyone having a good time in a bar. Grumpy career bartenders will tell you that it’s the guest’s job to toe the fucking line. Naïve cocktail twats will tell you that the bartender had better crawl around on all fours the whole night. I’ve often wondered if there’s a third option these two camps aren’t sharing with us.

You’re at the bar because you want to escape the real world, and that’s awesome. But the onus is not on the staff to absorb an unlimited amount of abuse and magically transform it into a positive experience for everyone who walks through the door.

What if hospitality was actually a two-way street? If you haven’t noticed, then maybe I’m not the one who should tell you that it’s a crazy world out there. And listen, it’s not getting better anytime soon. Bars have always been a sort of sanctuary, and not just for the guest. Do you think people like me work in bars because we love being on our feet for 12 hours a day? No, we’re avoiding reality, too. Lord knows I’m here because I’m running away from a career in architecture.

You’re at the bar because you want to escape the real world, and that’s awesome. But the onus is not on the staff to absorb an unlimited amount of abuse and magically transform it into a positive experience for everyone who walks through the door. We’re going to be looking at fewer and fewer people able to make this a viable career and more and more bitter alcoholics schlepping drinks if that’s our understanding of service.

My first bar job was this cozy, warm, neighborhood tavern — that had recently been overrun by meth and heroin, prostitution and violence. It was a real problem, and the community was beginning to turn their back on the place. So what we did was make it inhospitable for bad behavior. We cleaned it up a bit. We built a big fire in the fireplace, and put on some jazz. Didn’t overserve people. And we asked anyone who was under the influence to leave. And it worked: The neighborhood came out to support this sacred social space we’d helped restore.

Because you know what? It’s okay to do that. It’s okay to say that we don’t want that shit in our bars. It’s okay to say, as a community, that we don’t want our gathering places to be full of people who are inconsiderate of others. It’s okay to say that we don’t want our bars full of men who harass women. It’s okay to say that in our bars, we’re going to treat everyone in the room with respect, whether it’s the staff or the other guests.

Sure, we as bartenders are here to take care of people. But sometimes what people really need, apparently, is to piss all over a bathroom sink. Is it our job to accommodate that? Or would doing so be inhospitable to those who might want to relax in a urine-free environment? If I walk into a bar and insist that I’m the most important person in the room, is the bartender being inhospitable to the rest of the room by accommodating my irrational needs? Or have I stepped outside of the bounds of the social contract by turning what should ordinarily be an enjoyable experience into an unpleasant business transaction?

I think it’s totally fair to demand a little more from everyone else in the room. Because when I’m sitting at the bar and you’re making life miserable for the bartender, you’re actually impeding on my experience, too. And so help me if the bartender is one of these obsequious types who is going to go out of their way to appease your every petty desire, because pretty soon you’re going to be the only two people in here.

Maybe we could all stand to treat each other a little better. And while we’re in the process of doing so, maybe — just maybe — we’ll make our little corner of the world a more enjoyable place to be.

Oh, but one last thing: Fuck your “no cell phone” policy. It’s 2016. Get over it already.

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