Lesson Nine: How To Judge a Bar

Bar Keepers

No matter the cutting-edge bar designs and outrageous drink menus that the media celebrates, the only reason people fall in love with bars is people. Everything else is novelty, flash and bling, and even those are useless without people to implement them. Hipness without a deep sense of hospitality can be deeply insulting; but hipness with a genuine sense of respect and human interaction is empowering.  The great motto of the Ritz Carlton has been “ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” If less monotheistic than “the customer is always right”, it nonetheless describes how everyone in an ideal hospitality setting should derive dignity from the experience.

It’s a notion that is both simple and endlessly challenging and egalitarian in its reach: service requires that complete faith be placed in the hands of the customer. A great bar assumes that every customer is brilliant, curious, kind and humane, until proven otherwise; respect should be demonstrated at every moment of customer interaction. We as customers should do no less.

But the hospitality setting is tough; any of us who have spent some time behind the stick know it’s true. And the bartender is challenged more than any other: he or she will, at some point, act as host or hostess, waiter, cook, bouncer, dishwasher, therapist, you name it. When judging the quality of a bar, it’s appropriate to first ask: is the bartender making me feel welcome? Is it fun to sit at this bar? Are the drinks delicious?

For those of us who have served as reviewers or bar critics, it’s important to know when somebody has had a bad day and when a place is just plain unfriendly.

Each position in a bar or restaurant has its own demands.

The persona of the Proprietor or Manager sets the standards of the bar or restaurant to a remarkable degree. Some managers sit in the back room and noodle over the numbers; the best work the floor and seem a nearly constant presence, connecting with customers and employees alike. Any manager should be expected to be friendly, professional, considerate and, boy-scout comparisons aside, they are able to communicate their concern for guest and employee well being. In the worst establishments, managers show only impatience with the give and take of being in a people business. Managers are never allowed a bad day; they should demonstrate that mentality to all employees, and when you come into contact with one of them, you should first feel as though they are delighted that you have decided to talk to them, whether it’s to bring them good news or bad.

A restaurant may or may not have a host or hostess that contacts you before you walk into the bar. It may be the commonest of errors: a host or hostess who treats you as if you are lucky they’ve chosen to acknowledge your existence. If that happens, turn around rudely and walk out the door. They are jerks, and deserve to be treated as such. Whoever hired them is either stupid or uncaring and I’d hate to have a drink made by anybody like that.

Cocktail servers are often cute, short-skirted females; there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. But a smile and a welcoming disposition are a lot more important than cute. It’s not simply that most people look a lot nicer when they’re smiling, it’s that servers are expected to connect with each customer; smiling is the beginning. Drinks taste a lot better coming from someone you like.

If any employee answers your request for assistance with a dismissive, “I’ll tell your server.”, make a mental note to forget the address of said establishment. When employees forget that they are serving all customers, not just the handful sitting at their stations, they haven’t been well trained, at a minimum. That reflects poorly upon management, and as noted above, bad managers equal bad employees, poor decisions and at some point, poor ingredients and lousy drinks. Shit flows downhill, people.

If any of this seems niggling in its demands that each employee show personal and specific concern for each guest, well, welcome to the hospitality business. It’s a detail business; every detail, every single interaction counts because every customer who walks in the door is judging you at every turn. One detail out of place and that person makes a mental, sometimes even unconscious note and it adds up to a feeling of disquiet. Put a few of those together and you’ve got an unhappy customer and everyone knows, unhappy guests tell a hundred people; happy ones tell only a dozen. Do the math. Details count.

But, you see, there is no way to overstate the importance that every employee should embody a belief in the humility of service. Yes, I know we are now fantasizing a perfect establishment, but trust us, it sometimes happens. Some bars make you feel welcome at every turn, and not just welcome but also smart, cool, excited and, ultimately, genuinely liked for having chosen to walk in their door and give them a try.

Bartenders and Talk

The popular vision of the bartender as part therapist and part comedian is a cliché, but clichés usually have some basis in reality. The greatest publicans can tell a great joke or tale, but they also know when it’s time to listen. But maybe greatness is overvalued when goodness will do: the ability to make people comfortable, to know how to make a delicious drink and to keep a bar flowing smoothly and profitably are remarkable skills as well.

Of late, there are so many new ingredients and resurgent recipes that quality bartenders are challenged to have encyclopedic memories as well. Many of the best can be counted on to share some of that knowledge, but not too much. If you want to learn something from your bartender about this week’s cool gin brand, or an ancient whisky on the back bar, ask away. He or she should at least know what they have for sale. But if you expect them to know every brand you’ve ever seen on your trips to Latvia, Mongolia or Patagonia and you want to play a game of stump the chump, don’t be surprised if your mixologist lingers at the other end of the bar.

A skillful bartender has a story about each of their featured drinks, and knows how to describe the flavors of each of the spirits and liqueurs sitting behind them. The best of them don’t share that information unless it’s requested, and then they hand it over like Goldilocks, not too much, not too little but just right.

Cocktail Menus

It wasn’t so long ago that cocktail menus were the exception; now everybody has one. Sometimes it looks like everybody has the same cocktail menu, but it shouldn’t. A cocktail menu should reflect the persona of the bar, the owner, the employees and the concept of the venue. If the cocktail servers are wearing evening gowns, it wouldn’t be wrong to hope for some classic cocktails. If the joint is serving shots and beer, twenty ingredient cocktails have no place in that place (not that twenty ingredient cocktails belong anywhere except in a satire). If the décor looks like tiki, the cocktails should scream tiki. If the name of the place is Washington’s Cherry Tree, there ought to be some shrub, punches and Madeira.

The bar should smell clean; the bar top should feel clean. The cocktail menus should be clean and printed in such a way that you can read them (who invented four-point font anyway? I’m looking for the guy to gouge out his eyes). Remember what we said about details? You don’t know what the bar is paying their employees or how they’re treating them; you don’t know if they make good buying decisions or if they’re trying to shake every last penny out of you. But you can, and will, pass judgment on what you see, smell, taste and hear; if something is out of place, other mistakes are likely.

Most people can tell a good vibe from a bad one; that vibe reflects the good choices the management and employees make every day. If that bar is easy and fun to be in, pull up a chair and chill; you’re home.

Complaints and Compliments

One last note: just because somebody makes a mistake is no crime. If you’ve ever worked behind the stick, you’ve made a few; most of us screw something up nightly. What matters is how we handle the mistake. Don’t get pissed off if I drop the wrong drink in front of you or forget your name or a napkin or if I get caught up with a noisy customer on the other end of the bar and let you sit with a empty glass for a few minutes. Judge me on how I respond to your complaint. A great and humble server or bartender will thank you for having the nerve to say something (most people don’t, at least not until they leave the place and then they reaaaaallly talk), and then fix it quickly with an apology, a smile and nary an excuse. Service is humility in the face of adversity, as well as confidence in one’s ability; the ability to make you feel great about all your decisions: what you’ve chosen to order and where you’ve chosen to drink tonight.