9 Lessons About Better Bar Etiquette We Learned During the Pandemic

We beecame a better class of drinkers during COVID. Let’s not go back.

May 18, 2021 8:55 am
Bar patrons yelling at a bartender. Post-Covid, we'd love to use lessons learned to get to a better drinking space.
Is this the drinking world we want to go back to?
John Rensten

At some point this year — probably June or July, according to most state legislators — coronavirus restrictions will ease and we will all re-emerge, like bears from their slumber, into polite society. To help you readjust, we’ll be sharing some advice on grooming, fitness, getting dressed in something besides sweatpants (but also sweatpants), how to manage your stress and mental health, dating, concert and bar etiquette, and more.

The best and worst drinking experiences I’ve ever had all happened in the past year.

While the hospitality industry suffered to an extraordinary degree during COVID-19 — hundreds of billions in losses, up to eight million furloughed or laid-off employees at the pandemic’s peak, untold thousands of restaurants and bars permanently shuttered  — recent stats point to a comeback. People really, really want to go out. In fact we’re even more likely to be going out than we were in 2019

And people at the bars and in restaurants really want to serve you! Hopefully with fewer obstacles and restrictions but still in a safe manner.

Think about how we ordered drinks in the before times (circa 2019) — that was chaos. But this past year? We paid attention, stood in line, tipped better and everyone strove to be more accommodating and polite. For every terrible adjustment (mandatory food with drink orders, limited menus, very limited hours, outdoor seating in January, etc.) there was something good to be learned about imbibing during pandemic times. 

One bit of good news, at least at the upscale drinking establishments — people are still being careful and polite. At least early in the evening. “Since I have been out at bars a couple of times since the restriction of actually sitting at a bar was lifted, I can tell you that from what I’ve seen, people are generally well aware of each other, especially early in service,” says Frank Caiafa, an NYC-based Beverage Director and author of The Waldorf Astoria Bar Book. “I think the real challenge will be as hours expand, trying to keep guests grouped as inhibitions fade and as good times ensue. I think that if the bar staff remain engaged, they should be able to remind their guests that although it is a ‘public house’, it’s not their house and that safety precautions are meant for everyone.”

So, good start! Now, there are hundreds of bar etiquette guides if you need a general reminder on the dos and don’ts — below, we’d like to focus on some drinking lessons learned in the past year that hopefully sunk in for the long term. Maybe we can keep a few of those habits before we revert to this.

To wit: 

Tip like it’s 2020

Look, no sentence that begins “_____ like it’s 2020” is good. Except this one. Remember that stat about bars closing and millions of industry people losing jobs? We’re not out of this yet, and last year was rough and that means this year is rough for people in the industry. If you can’t afford to tip well, you can’t afford to go out.

Earn the right to keep to-go cocktails a thing

Some states like Texas and Florida have made to-go cocktails permanent. Meanwhile, here in New York, we’re dealing with a month-to-month renewal of carry-out/delivery drinks and a fickle, embattled governor who doesn’t seem enthralled with the idea. Since both customers and venues would like to keep this carry-out option, all we ask is that you take your booze away from the establishment if ordering to go (aka don’t crowd around) and don’t litter. Recycle, too!

Don’t sneak in booze in hand sanitizer bottles

That hack you learned from TikTok is offensive.

When it comes to paying the tab, keep it simple

Paying the bar tab actually got easier during the pandemic — between apps and touchless payment systems, the process was quick and there were was little to no human contact. Now that we’re gathering in numbers, however, old split-the-check habits threaten to return. “The common issue of wanting both speedy service and amenities like separate checks needs to be removed,” says Sother Teague, the Beverage Director of Overthrow Hospitality (Amor y Amargo, Etérea). “The largest example is when the bill comes and groups want to pay separately. There are plenty of apps out there to help you and your group sort out the bill. If I’m busy separating checks then you have to wait on my attention and thus drinks and are dissatisfied or upset. Yet, when your group leaves and requests separated bills, the next person is suffering the same delay that was problematic for you. A snake that eats itself. “

In other words: One person in your group should pay, and the rest of you should learn how to use Venmo.

Follow house rules, whatever they are

Does your bar ask that you wear a mask when not seated and keep your tables to a maximum of four people? Don’t argue, just do it (maybe even do 30 seconds of research on the bar before you go out so you know what to expect). Also, err on the side of caution; recently, I only took off a mask at an outdoor rum bar in Brooklyn while ordering when a staff member told me it was ok to remove.

Share your good bar experiences on social media

Did you have a good, safe time at your local watering hole? Share your love on your social media platform of choice and tag the bar / bartender. Conversely, do not spend time posing your drinks or rearranging chairs/decorations to get the right Instagram shot — either take your pics at your table on your own time, or if you’re taking a photo of a drink or a bartender, be quick and (this is important) ask permission. 

Keep your distance

This applies in in a few ways: If there’s a line for drinks, that six-foot rule is still a good idea (depending on crowds). And don’t talk to strangers unless you get a pretty explicit approval to come closer. 

Sam Nelis of Barr Hill Gin Distillery Bar in Montpelier, VT
“Please treat us as professionals,” says Sam Nelis of the Barr Hill Gin Distillery Bar (while happily serving you excellent cocktails)
Caledonia Spirits

Use that bar knowledge you gained during quarantine

A whole lot of people became drinks enthusiasts during lockdown. “[Since COVID] Many people have taken the time at home to learn something new and discover how fun making cocktails can be while embracing more elaborate premium spirits and ingredients,” as Bacardi’s Global V.P. Strategy Insights and Analytics, Brenda Fiala, told us earlier this year (that report also suggested we were gonna get really into exotic drinks or “a desire for extremes” in our drinks). So, educated drinkers, use that knowledge! Buy more interesting drinks. Ask your bartender questions (in a safe manner, and keep those to a minimum if it’s crowded). Explore your new world.

And remember: “Please be patient, good cocktails take time,” as Sam Nelis of Barr Hill Gin Distillery Bar in Montpelier, VT tells us. “ You won’t regret waiting a little longer for a cocktail that is freshly built and shaken to order using fresh ingredients.” (And when you’re getting those elevated sips, expect prices that reflect that quality. “Locally sourced ingredients will be more expensive, and we want to make sure everyone is treated correctly throughout the whole process, from the farmer to the distiller to the bartender.”)

Conversely, don’t feel guilty about ordering what you want

Yes, some old rules still apply — if a bar only serves mezcal, don’t order vodka. Be mindful of a bartender’s time if you have a unique or large order, etc. But also? You just spent a year dealing with $18 spicy margaritas served in a plastic cup. The time for pretentiousness is over. Order the blue drink. Get the pornstar martini (everyone else in the world is). Even your vodka soda is fine, but please try to make it interesting.

Most important lesson? As an editor reminded me last year, “You know, even now, drinking is supposed to be fun.” 


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