American bar etiquette for international travelers

US bar Credit: Boston Public Library.

My background is nearly twenty years in the food and beverage industry with experience working on both coasts. I’ve managed, bartended, bar-backed, served, done security … you name it, I’ve done it. I’ve worked in restaurants, resorts, nightclubs, and lots of types of bars: sports bar, gay bar, hip-hop bar, Latin bar, and a country bar with a mechanical bull built by the same guy who did the one for Urban Cowboy. Through my work experiences, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every kind of patron one can imagine.

Many times, the second a foreign traveler walks into the bar, the staff collectively winces, knowing that there’s a pretty good chance that customer is not aware of the proper etiquette in an American establishment. Don’t get me wrong, I like foreign things. I like James Bond, eat crab rangoon, find Montreal city to be pretty nice, and can tell a kitchen guy to go fuck his mother in Mexican Spanish. But beyond that, I have little to no global culture. I do keep bald eagles as pets, but I’m not a Rush Limbaugh/Glenn Beck listening, gun toting, “’merica invented freedom” kind of guy. I can appreciate every country’s contribution to the screwed up world in which we live.

I don’t blame foreigners for their lack of knowledge because to be honest, I have no clue about the drinking etiquette overseas. I wish there was a book out there with the customs of each country so I don’t stick out like a sore thumb the next time I’m in North Korea or Afghanistan. But there is no book like that, so I will give these tips so that all visitors from foreign lands can enjoy everything the States has to offer, while getting shit-faced.

  1. TIP! If you retain nothing from my recommendations, remember to tip. I’ve heard all the lip service that it’s not customary to tip in Europe, they pay a higher wage, blah, blah, blah. Well, America is not in Europe! Most service workers make less than minimum wage and depend on tips as a wage. Good rule of thumb is 20%. If a server has a problem with a 20% tip, they’re an asshole. Another old standard is $1.00 per drink, but most drinks these days are more than $5.00, so we’re getting into the below 20% range. If you want to get the bartender’s attention, tip heavy on the first round. I guarantee your drinks will be prompt, strong and they may even comp one or two for you. If you think the bartender doesn’t know that you just tipped them well, you’re wrong. A good bartender remembers everyone and everything.
  2. BE PATIENT AND HAVE YOUR MONEY READY Know your surroundings. If you see the bar packed, expect that it may take a little bit longer to get a drink and the bartender’s attention. Please do not take it upon yourself to get his or her attention by flailing your arms like you’re drowning, whistling like you’re a construction worker chasing tail, snapping your fingers or banging on the bar. That’s a great way to get ignored. A good bartender sees everything. A simple head nod with cash (or card) ready will go a long way. On a side note, if you’re going to use a credit card, start a tab. Swiping your card for each individual drink is for frat boys, poor people and 21-year-old girls, and none of these are especially preferred customers in the service industry.
  3. KNOW WHAT YOU WANT TO DRINK Don’t ever ask, “what’s good?” You know what’s good? Bud Light in a bottle is excellent. Have a general knowledge of what direction you want to take the night. Is it going to be a whiskey night? Beer? Wine? It’s okay to ask for a drinks menu or beer or wine list, most bartenders will take the time to recommend his or her personal favorite, a house specialty or a good local brew. Have a general knowledge of what style of beer you like. There’s a craft beer revolution in the States and most bars, even the pissholes, have at least 12 beers on tap. “One Biere please” is not an acceptable order. Do you want light, dark, hoppy, sweet, a saison, stout or macro-American? Outside of McSoorley’s in NYC, most bars have more than light or dark. Oh, and for god sakes don’t order mixed shots! A Red Headed Slut, Screaming Orgasm, Duck Fart or any other stupid shot you once got at a bar in Florida or you have to Google the recipe on your phone will drive the bartender crazy. I guarantee your barkeep hits the slow motion button on service.
  4. NEVER HIGH FIVE Borat came out in 2006, grow the fuck up. You didn’t just score the winning touchdown or bang a ten in the bar’s restroom, so keep your hands to yourself. It’s a sure fire way to show how intoxicated you are.
  5. NEVER WEAR SUNGLASSES INSIDE OR AT NIGHT Another sure fire way to show how intoxicated you are. Larry David said it best, only blind people and assholes wear sunglasses inside.
  6. GETTING ID’d IS NOT A PERSONAL ATTACK, JUST SHOW IT Americans are fully aware that everywhere else in the world is far more liberal/less puritanical about alcohol consumption. Tell me again about how you were drinking at 12 with your family during Wednesday afternoon siesta. But guess what? In the States, there are huge consequences if you sell or serve to an underaged or overly intoxicated person. Carry a passport and be prepared to use it to show your age. A door guy has enough to worry about without having to deal with some patron who swears up and down that his Zurich driver’s license is real. There are 196 countries in the world, who knows how many forms of ID each country has? Not your typical doorman. If a door guy refuses entrance because you don’t have your passport, it’s your fault. Another side note, asking for ID from everyone who enters the building is also a screening process to see how intoxicated a person is or if they’re a bum—brace yourself, you’re being profiled.
  7. IF YOU GET CUT OFF, BOW OUT GRACEFULLY This goes back to #6 and the liability and puritanical values of the United States. I’m sure across the globe, people drink until they pass out, throw up or crap their pants. Grow up. Act like you’ve been there before. If a staff member says you’re overly intoxicated, don’t fight it. Leave. I’d rather throw you out one drink too soon than one drink too late, as I have enough job to deal with without cleaning up your vomit.
  8. ACCEPT THAT IF YOU BUY A DRINK FOR SOMEONE, YOU’RE NOT AUTOMATICALLY GETTING LAID If you make eyes with that special someone across the bar and feel like purchasing a drink is phase one of the courting process, by all means buy him/her a drink. Be ready to chalk it up as a loss. Once you’ve purchased that drink, the ball’s in their court. Don’t be pushy, let it happen. Maybe go to the jukebox and play a little Teddy Pendergrass or Luther Vandros, I don’t know, these are just suggestions. If he or she is interested you’ll know. And if he or she is not interested, you’ll know.
  9. YOU’RE NOT GOING TO FUCK THE BARTENDER If a bartender is hot enough, odds are she’s not single. Even if she’s not hot enough, good luck! Hot girls are not single, especially in the food and beverage world. They’re hit on by everyone with a cock that orders a drink—married, single, black, white, yellow, red. They’ve heard it all. Unless you’re a chick hitting on a male bartender, then all bets are off.

Actually, none of these rules apply if you are a foreign broad hitting on male staff. Bar dudes are sluts.

Rob Vetere (San Diego, June 2015)

rob-vetere-bylineRob, aka Bobby V in exclusive circles, between rounds of golf and beer drinking makes time to manage a downtown bar in San Diego, CA. Originally from West Newbury, MA, the beautiful Left Coast has become his adoptive home.