Hey, Bartender: What is the proper amount to tip at a bar?
Gratuity is a dicey subject. Opinions vary wildly on what qualifies as a fair amount. One thing we can all agree on, however, is that tipping nothing at all is unacceptable. In the United States, tipping people in the service industry is customary. I understand other countries have different norms, but I can’t speak to those practices, so for the purposes of this column, let’s stick to domestic tipping customs.
Bartenders, like other service industry employees, depend on tips as part of our income. Yes, we get paid a slightly higher hourly rate than a restaurant server — we also typically have more responsibilities — but we are still making less than minimum wage before tips. Working behind the right bar can be a lucrative gig — we can walk with several hundred dollars or more on a good night — but business can be inconsistent, so don’t assume we’re raking in the cash.
Before I go any further, I want acknowledge that people in the hospitality industry have very different opinions on this subject. We tend to be more generous because we know the work involved. Pieces like this tend to irritate people outside the industry. I am offering my advice as a guideline based on standards of the industry. I understand that people will disagree with it. And that’s okay. Ultimately, you are entitled to tip whatever amount you think is sufficient. For my part, behind the bar I strive to be professional, and treat all my guests equally well regardless of how much they are tipping. Of course, it’s a bummer when I get a lousy tip, but I keep it to myself.
I also want to be sensitive to people’s financial situations. I acknowledge some people live on tight budgets. I also believe everyone deserves the occasional night out. I’ve spent enough time behind the bar to know when someone doesn’t have a lot of money to spend. If you’re polite and appreciative, I’m not going to begrudge you for not leaving me a big tip (though gratuity really should be factored into your social budget). That said, if you’re knocking back top-shelf spirits or pricey craft beers, you can afford to tip the standard amount.
So, what’s the right amount to tip? It depends. The standard gratuity for service in a bar is $1 per drink. If you’re keeping a tab open with a several rounds on it, then 20% of the total (or pre-tax total) is standard. I know that seems a bit steep if you’re drinking only bottled beer at your local dive bar — all I’m doing is popping a cap, right? — but there are also some intangible benefits that you might not notice. I’m providing prompt, friendly service, keeping the bar clean and well-organized, the liquor stocked, the beer cold, and making sure everyone is enjoying themselves (responsibly and peaceably) — all factors that make your experience positive and enjoyable.
Now, if you order something more complicated than a beer or a simple mixed drink, you should consider leaving a bit more — around $2-$3 per drink, or 20% per round. The rule of thumb is that the more involved the order, the better the tip should be. Making a quality craft cocktail requires skill and knowledge as well as a bit of time. So be sure to show you appreciate the effort; especially, if I spend time helping you figure out exactly what you want.
I’ll share a story. One night, a guest got ahold of our copy of the Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide. She began calling out obscure (and not very good) cocktails no one has made in 50 years until she found one I was sure she’d like. Pleased with the result, she got her friends to order the same thing. Two rounds later, not one tip from the bunch. I was gracious enough to indulge her, made the cocktails with a smile and received nothing in return.
For poor service (i.e. rude, slow, inattentive), you’re entirely within your right to tip less than the standard. But before you leave a nickel on the bar, maybe voice your displeasure to the bartender or a manager. The issue might be a simple miscommunication, or something else that can be easily rectified. I’d much rather have a guest speak up and give me a chance to make things right on the spot than let me find out about it on Yelp.
Stiffing, on the other hand, is almost never acceptable. However, if you receive truly, objectively awful service — rude, offensive, disrespectful — and no one is willing to address things to your satisfaction, you’re entitled to refuse a tip.
A word about hosted (open) bars. Just because the drinks are free, doesn’t mean the service is. Be sure to show your appreciation to those hardworking bartenders, who typically have to do a large amount of additional side work since these sorts of bars need to be set up and taken down. Yes, we are likely to get a nice tip from whomever is paying the tab at the end of the night, but that doesn’t excuse you from tipping. A good practice is to tip $20 or so at the beginning of the night — just make sure that I see you do it. If that seems like a lot of money, think about how much you’d be spending if the bar wasn’t free. Also, if there’s a tip jar out, never reach into it to make change. If you need to break a bill, ask us to do it.
Additional notes on good tipping etiquette:
Many bartenders consider tipping coins to be insulting. Please don’t leave pennies, nickels or dimes. If your beer comes to $4.65 and you leave $5, you’re not going to be making any friends. However, if you leave four quarters or an amount that exceeds $1, we won’t mind.
A shot is not a substitute for a tip. In Vermont, where I work, it’s illegal for a bartender to drink during a shift so I have to decline this gesture. But even if it were legal, I (and the majority of bartenders) would prefer money over booze any day.
Any money left on the bar is assumed to be a tip. Obviously, if you pay for three beers with $100 and forget the change on the bar, I’ll make sure to get it back to you.
Don’t leave tip money on top of the garnish tray, on bar mats (which might be wet or dirty), or anywhere else where it may be unsanitary or in the way.
If you’re sitting at the bar but not drinking alcohol, you should still tip. If you’re a designated driver, you’re a hero, and I’m probably comping your sodas anyway. But don’t take up a seat that could be making me (and the house) money and leave nothing at the end of the night.
If someone from across the bar buys you a round or picks up your tab, you should still leave a tip. Ditto if I buy you a round.
Don’t leverage a better tip for free drinks.
Jim Sabataso is a writer, cocktail enthusiast, and bar director for The Palms Restaurant in Rutland, Vermont. Follow him on Twitter @JimSabataso.