Stiffing the Bartender

Dear Helena,

I’m having this debate with my friend right now. I’m a whiskey man, and she likes serious cocktails—the really serious kind where they make their own maraschino cherries in order to accurately replicate a recipe from some old cocktail manual from 1913. I always tip a buck, but so does she. It takes the bartender two minutes to pour a whiskey, and maybe three times as long to make one of her froufrou drinks. I think she should throw in a little extra, or maybe I should be “allowed” to tip less. It just doesn’t seem fair to always tip a buck no matter what the drink. What do you think? —Baffled Barfly

Dear Baffled Barfly,

In general, you should indeed tip a dollar per drink, whether that drink is a straight whiskey or a classic cocktail. (There are a couple of exceptions, which I’ll get to in a minute.) Granted, it does seem a little unfair that if you order a $4 beer you’re tipping 25 percent for the bartender to open a bottle, whereas if you have a $10 martini that requires mixing, shaking, pouring, and garnishing with an olive, you’re only tipping 10 percent.

But one reason why the dollar tip has stayed the same for decades is that it’s convenient. Tipping less often involves fiddling with coins (and of course it definitely does if you’re only ordering one drink). If you’re ordering multiple beers and you feel a buck a beer is excessive, you can subtract the dollar tip for one of the drinks (leaving, say, $2 for three beers) every other round or so.

But bear in mind that bartenders make most or all of their income from tips, and the customary drink tip has not increased with inflation. Jason Kosmas, principal bartender at Employees Only and Macao Trading Company in New York, points out: “One of the guys has been bartending for 30 years and says he made the same amount of money in tips back then.”

There are two occasions when you should tip more than a dollar. First, add a couple of bucks if you’re in a large group and you take a long time ordering. Neyah White, a bartender at San Francisco restaurant Nopa, says: “One person flags you down and asks everyone else, ‘What do you want? What do you want?’ Then there’s this back-and-forth dance.” You should compensate the bartender for making him wait when he could be making drinks for other customers. But it’s OK to tip as you normally would if you deliver your party’s order briskly and without fuss. Says White: “Come with a plan and have it make sense. Like, don’t just order one Grey Goose, one Ketel, and one Belvedere just because everyone wants to be different.”

The other occasion when you should tip more is if your drink takes extra skill or trouble. For instance, tip extra if all you say is, “I’m in the mood for gin and something summery,” and the bartender whips up a cocktail to suit your fancy. Tip extra for labor-intensive drinks, like a Bloody Mary with five different garnishes. Or even if your drink is simple, you might reward the bartender for making it exceptionally well.

You need not increase your tip if your drink is pricier. This might seem less than classy, but it makes sense. White used to work in the Redwood Room, an upscale San Francisco hotel bar. “Customers would order two glasses of champagne for $36 and tip $2, and I would feel a little [annoyed] momentarily, but in the end I got $2 for 25 seconds’ worth of work.”

Finally, beware of tipping big on the first round in the hopes of securing the bartender’s attention later. Bartenders are wise to that strategy, and they don’t appreciate it. White explains: “When I see someone throw down superhuge, I know they’re trying to buy my affection and love, and it burns me.” A tip is for services rendered (otherwise it’s a bribe). So if you want to reward your bartender, do it at the end of the night.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.