Hey, Bartender! How to get Noticed at the Bar

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Bartenders are the keepers of wisdom, so in this new series, we’ll ask our resident bartender/scribe questions that will help you become a better, wiser bar-goer. First up, how to get noticed at a busy bar.

Hey, Bartender! What’s the best and least annoying way to get a bartender’s attention in a crowded bar?

This question seems like a good place to start with a bartender advice column. Trying to get served in a crowded bar can be frustrating. The first thing I’ll say is be patient and understand that there are likely people ahead of you waiting to be served. Still, prompt service is essential to a positive customer experience.

Bartenders work for tips so it’s in our best interest to fill your glass as promptly and frequently (within reason) as possible. We want to make you a drink. Keep in mind, though, that a bar is a hectic environment, and we are only human. Sometimes people get overlooked. If it happens once, roll with it. If it keeps happening, you might be justified in your frustration. But before you lose your cool, let me see if I can help diagnose the problem.

While it might not always look like it, any good bartender has a method for working a busy bar. Typically, he/she will start in one direction and move up or down trying to create a flow. This is the most efficient way to work a rush. At times, this strategy can lead to someone getting overlooked, but most of us usually have a general sense of who’s been waiting the longest, and we’ll likely snag that patient soul at the other end before we get to the three people who just bellied up right in front of me.

Absent a rush, there’s no reason you shouldn’t receive prompt service. People like to toss around the cliché of the bartender who’s too busy talking with friends or flirting to take your order. Does this happen? Sure. But keep in mind that part of being a good bartender is chatting up your guests — it’s how we get better tips (and sometimes phone numbers). However, when this happens at the expense of good service, we’re doing it wrong.

Any bartender worth his/her salt can juggle conversation and service. If you politely make yourself known, he/she should be happy to serve you. If they ignore you, go somewhere else because why even bother giving them your money? I’ve worked with bartenders who cater to regulars and dismiss new faces; it’s rude as hell and completely unacceptable.

So what’s the best way to get a bartender’s attention? Eye contact. If you approach the bar, and get seen, you’ll get served no problem. We will always remember a face easier than a waving hand or disembodied voice. And don’t be a shrinking violet. There’s no need to be an over-aggressive jerk throwing elbows to get to the front of the line, but if you’re peeking over someone’s shoulder, I’m probably not going to see you.

As for what not to do, please don’t snap your fingers or whistle. It may seem like a quick way to get our attention, but it’s also incredibly rude. And I’ll let you in on an ugly secret: that kind of behavior will only delay you’re getting served. Personally, I don’t play that game, but a lot of bartenders do. It’s pretty immature, but then again so is making a scene because you have to wait in line.

In the end, be polite and patient. We really do want to get you that drink. There are jerk bartenders and jerk customers, but most of us in the middle are worth having a drink with, so what’s your flavor?

In the time-honored tradition of bartenders telling jokes, I’m going to end these columns with a standup clip. Enjoy.

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer and part-time bartender living in Vermont. Have a bar- or cocktail-related or question, you’d like answered? Send it to him on Twitter @JimSabataso with the hashtag #heybartender.

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