I am an unlikely candidate to write a blog about drinking. I’ve only just learned the difference between bourbon and rye, I don’t have an Old Fashioned recipe memorized, and I rarely make myself drinks at home. My late entrance into the cocktail scene wasn’t out of lack of interest, but rather years of social anxiety. As a young adult I found myself isolated by a paralyzing fear of new people and unfamiliar places. This wasn’t the life I wanted so I tackled the problem with therapy and job choices that forced me to face my fears. Sometimes I still have heart palpitations when meeting new people or navigating new space, but most days I finally have the life I wanted all along; getting out, socializing, and experiencing all the joy that my beloved cities have to offer
Where does drinking come into all this? I won’t lie, sometimes alcohol is the perfect social lubricant, diminishing inhibitions just enough to quiet the anxious voice. But that’s not actually what has helped me most . . . no, what has helped me most is the bar, particularly the bartender. Through trial and error at a variety of venues, I have learned that my best experiences almost always happen at the bar. This effect is dramatic enough that I have had a reversal in opinion about a place where I previously sat in a lounge area. So trust me, sit at the bar.
While both servers and bartenders are vital to a venue’s customer service, you often interact with a server in short bursts and usually to convey a specific order, whereas a bartender stays put behind the bar. Even when it’s busy, a bartender may pause in front of you for the few minutes it takes to make your drink and that time is often spent in a bit of friendly banter. For someone who gets anxious about friendly banter or small talk, this might not seem like a positive, but there’s a safety net built in to all this – part of the job of a bartender is to make you feel welcome and comfortable. Better yet, most bartenders truly enjoy getting to know their customers.
One perk to sitting at the bar, especially if the place isn’t swamped, is that you get to have a one-on-one drink consultation. I write a blog about drinking and still tend to panic when ordering because the options are overwhelming, especially if the bar doesn’t have a menu. Contrary to what some websites may lead you to believe, most bartenders enjoy helping their patrons figure out what to drink (when they have the time to do so properly). You can start a great conversation by saying “I like whiskey/gin/vodka and prefer drinks that are sweeter/spicier/more spirit forward, what would you recommend?” Or if you have a drink you like, try asking “I like Gin And Tonics but am in more of a whiskey mood, do you have any ideas?” As long as you’re open to trying something new, you just might end up with a new favorite drink before the night is done!
Good bartenders get to know you because they are well-practiced in reading, talking to, and helping people. It doesn’t matter that you’re not very good at talking to strangers because the person on the other side of the bar is a professional at it. The best bartenders can make even the most awkward and anxious person feel at home, in part so they will buy another drink and in part because their people skills probably helped them get their job. As I said, there’s a safety net in sitting at the bar. You don’t have to fear rejection because it’s a bartender’s job to make you happy, but you also know you’re in good hands because you’re with someone who enjoys and excels at getting to know people.
Don’t forget that customer service is a two way street – treat the bartender with kindness and respect because that’s what you want in return. Whether you become a regular or just make someone’s night a bit better, customer facing jobs are tough and often thankless, a little kindness is often appreciated. Because I tend to go to my favorite bars when it’s quiet, I’ve been able to get to know some people who I would otherwise have found intimidating. (As an adult, my favorite bartenders feel like “the cool kids.”) The confidence I’ve gained by getting to know people across the bar has made me better able and more excited about trying new places.
The moral of the story is this: sit at the bar. You’ll get more face time with someone who is well practiced at making people feel comfortable because it’s part of their job, you’ll have a better experience because you’re enjoying a drink with the person who created it for you, and there’s little social risk involved as long as you hold up your end of the deal (respect, politeness, paying/tipping). The best social benefits of alcohol don’t come from getting drunk; they come from bellying up to the bar and getting to know the bartender. Practice makes perfect, and this practice happens to come with delicious beverages!