You walk into a bar, the same bar you’ve walked into many times before. You take a seat on a stool — your stool, the one in the corner that somehow always seems to be open when you arrive — and are greeted by bartenders who know who you are and are happy that you dropped by. You order your drink and gauge the environment. It’s a weeknight, so the staff isn’t in the weeds. There’s time to catch up with the bartenders you know but you’re also aware they’re on the clock. It doesn’t bother you in the least bit if they break away from you mid-conversation to take a customer order. You turn to the person next to you and strike up a breezy conversation while you wait. The bartender returns, and your conversation resumes like the music from a vinyl record once the needle drops. A couple of hours pass, perhaps faster than what you feel is possible. You square your bill, tip appropriately, and say your goodbyes to your friends, with all parties knowing that the session will repeat again sometime in the future. It could be tomorrow, it could be a month from now, or even the next time you’re in town on business. But it will happen.
This type of visit is indicative of someone who’s earned the distinction of being a good bar regular. It’s a special title that’s much different from a plain ol’ bar regular; that’s a designation for people who merely show up to get a drink. A good bar regular, on the other hand, is a title that’s earned, doled out by a staff that recognizes that a regular gives a damn about who they are and the hospitality they deliver night after night, shift after shift. It’s a sacred title to possess, and if you understand a few guidelines, it’s not that difficult to attain.
Quality Over Quantity
It doesn’t matter how often you drop in when it comes to being the type of regular bartenders love to see. It also doesn’t really matter if you show up when the bar opens or if you pop in an hour before closing. It’s all about what you do with your time at the bar that counts. “A good bar regular isn’t necessarily measured by volume but by substance,” explains Hank Murphy, bartender at Yacht Club in Denver. “A person can come in once a week, once every other week, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the respect they bring: respecting the space, the people around them, and the employees. They add to the bar experience.”
Part of this respect obviously involves not being a rude, entitled jerk to the staff and other patrons. However, these behaviors are traits that stem from a bigger mindset, one that’s chiefly driven by an appreciation for what the bar industry is and what it isn’t. “There is a disconnect from humanity with a bad regular,” says Cody Banks, Taproom Manager for Ross Brewing Co. in Port Monmouth, N.J. “They see us as being in the service industry instead of the hospitality industry. They lack awareness and the understanding between the two.”
Discerning service from hospitality is crucial to the equation. The primary objective of any bar worth its salt — whether it’s a high-end cocktail bar, a fancy wine bar, a brewery tap room, or a ramshackle dive — is to build a warm, welcoming environment that’s conducive to community building. This can’t be achieved through the mere service of slinging drinks. It must be maintained through the human connection and relationship building that forms the core of hospitality. At a bar, this starts within the customer-bartender dynamic before it permeates to surrounding patrons, and it can’t start without an appreciation for what the bartender does. “We engage in ‘living room hospitality.’ For all intents and purposes, the customer is in my home,” says Izzy Tulloch, head bartender at Milady’s in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. “We expect to be met with respect.”
Earned, Not Bought
Good bar regular status must be earned by respecting the bar, its staff, and its environment, meaning it can’t be bought through a series of massive tips. An abundant tip amount will not act like a healing balm that magically absolves the awful behaviors of patrons who routinely act poorly. “I hate the mentality of ‘well, they’re a bad customer, but they tip really well,’ ” Banks says.
While leaving a big tip is a nice gesture, it’s not something that’s most likely not going to change a bartender’s opinion of the tipper. “You don’t have to tip 40 percent to prove you’re a good customer,” says Patrick Gibson, bartender at Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C. “I’d rather have you be a joy in the bar than show off your riches through your tip amount.”
A Good Report Card
Bartenders tend to have an innate sense of whether a new customer has the potential to be a good bar regular. “A good bartender can read people,” Tulloch says. “98 percent of the time people walk up, you’ll know whether they’re going to be good or bad. Usually, the script doesn’t get flipped.”
“A great bar regular will make things easier for the whole room,”
This innate sense of how a customer may behave can manifest itself through various visible signs. Bad behaviors tend to be obvious: A customer who constantly slaps the bar top for attention or yells out a bartender’s name while they’re helping another guest is a red flag on two legs. Good behaviors, on the other hand, tend to be a little more subtle. “You can tell if a new guest may turn into a good regular by how they’re interacting with others, not how they’re interacting with me,” Murphy says. “It’s a good sign if everyone is comfortable around them.”
Eventually, a good bar regular may even act as an unpaid extension of a bar team. “A great bar regular will make things easier for the whole room,” Murphy states. “They will help me out through nuanced acts, like handing menus to new guests that walk up behind them if they see that I’m busy.”
A good bar regular isn’t infallible once they achieve a reputation of excellence. Slip-ups and faux pas can and do occur. When they do, the mutual respect between the regular and the bartender allows for a firm but diplomatic solution that keeps the relationship intact. “I’ll react sharper when a good bar regular does something stupid, but the recovery time from being called out is immediate,” Murphy explains. “And if I have to cut off a good regular, they will take it with grace.”
What the most favored customers drink usually isn’t a factor in the equation, either. In fact, ordering a drink that a cocktail snob may frown upon may be welcomed by a busy bar crew. “You don’t have to drink the ‘cool stuff’ to be a good bar regular,” Gibson says. “It’s a relief to see someone that you know will order an Espresso Martini. As a bartender, that type of order can make your life easier.”
More Than a Customer
A good bar regular can evolve into a bartender’s friend over time, which is a natural process. “Quite a few regulars have become friends, especially regulars of bars I previously worked at,” Tulloch says. “You build long-lasting relationships with these people. They become part of your life.”
At the very least, a good bar regular can be a positive presence in the life of a bartender when they’re behind the stick. This is noteworthy, as bartenders have a tough gig. They’re on their feet for (likely odd) hours on end. They must occasionally deal with less than savory folk. That’s why seeing a good, reliable guest pull up in their favorite stool can make the challenges of the role disappear, if only for a little while. “There are times when I’ve been having an absolutely crappy shift, and I look up, and I see regulars,” Banks says. “When I see them smiling at me, it feels like I got a shot of dopamine. I feel like I’ve been tipped just by them being there.”