For this edition of Shift Diaries, we’ve headed to our nation’s capital. No matter who’s in the Oval Office, Washington, D.C., is a city that loves to drink, with co-workers gathering for happy hours, university students and convention attendees hanging out at bars, and residents from across the DMV area grabbing cocktails as part of a night out featuring dinner or a show. D.C. bars have also increasingly been offering non-alcoholic options to make sure no one feels left out of the social scene.

We talked to four bartenders working across the city about what a typical Friday night is like as they sling cocktails, pour shots, and set the mood with custom playlists.

Name: Taylor Macchia
Age: 22
Location: Tonic at Quigley’s Pharmacy
Pronouns: She/Her
Tips: $150–$250
Shift: There’s a solid happy-hour crowd between people getting out of classes or getting off of work and just bopping in really quick. We have solid happy hour deals. We do $6 all drafts, rail liquors, and house wines. It’s pretty unusual for all drafts to be discounted for happy hour, so a lot of people are drawn to that. We’ve got some food specials, too, like $7 tater tots. Once it hits 7 and happy hour is over, you get the semi-late-night dinner crowd. It’s mostly people looking for a chill Friday to hang out and grab some food and some beer.

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It’s a lot of beer people. It’s pretty common for people to ask, “Can you break down the local beers you’ve got for me?” Our bar manager does a good job keeping us educated on what’s what so we can do that pretty easily. We do have a decent amount of cocktails that people try. I might be biased because I’m a beer-with-my-bar-food kind of girl. We do classic mixed drinks, Gin and Tonics, Vodka Sodas, and the occasional wine, but not too much of that.

The shifts start at 3:30, so you get in with enough time to set everything up for happy hour, which starts at 4. If I’m doing the garden shift or the upstairs lounge area, my shift goes until anywhere from 8–9:30, but if you’re working the main bar you’re usually closing out the whole restaurant. But it’s never later than midnight.

When you get in at 3:30, you’re just picking up where the morning people left off. If they have some tables that are still open, they’ll transfer them to you, making sure you have the napkins, the side plates. Happy hour slowly trickles in. A lot of people get off early on Fridays. Sometimes, they’ll wait until happy hour starts until they order anything. Sometimes, I find that people coming to happy hour alone just want to sit there in silence and decompress. My rule of thumb when interacting with people is they set the expectation. If they’re chatting, I’ll chat right back and make conversation. You can usually tell.

From 5:15–6:30 would be the thick of it. At 7, you start to see more groups of people, whereas happy hour is usually one or two people together stopping in for a quick bite and a drink after work. It’s more people there for dinner once 7 rolls around. We typically close around 10, so you get people just coming in for a drink or two on their way home. People are getting food up until the last second they can.

Our crowd varies. It’s professionals 25–60. You’ll get the occasional GW students who just turned 21. Occasionally, you’ll get some families out there. Kids tend to like the large picnic tables. There is a QR code at the table and you can order food and drinks from there if you don’t want to come up to the bar. It can be extremely helpful, especially when it’s very busy. Everything they order comes straight to our computers. But when it’s not very busy, I do prefer to do actual face-to-face service because I feel that’s a draw of going out to eat.

Usually everybody doesn’t leave until we tell them that we’re closed, which is fair. I do the same thing. It trickles out so you can get a lot of your side work done before people leave so you’re not super late. You’re making sure all glasses are clean, wiping down the bar, making sure everything is generally tidy, taking out the trash. All the basic stuff.

Name: Rita Kirkpatrick
Age: 36
Location: Morris American Bar
Pronouns: She/Her
Tips: $300–$450
Shift: Last Friday was a little hectic. We got some really beautiful new knives to do garnishes for our drinks, and I ended up cutting myself. The knives worked really well, I can report. I was cutting orange twists for a bourbon Old Fashioned variation. I like to make them really pretty.

I get in at 3 p.m., and I leave around 3 a.m. Right when we open, we’re prepping all the juices and syrups for the night. We juice all of our citrus fresh every day — lemon, lime, grapefruit. We’re restocking on all of the syrups. That time between 3–5 p.m. is just making sure we have everything stocked and chilled.

Our Fridays will normally start a little slow from 5–7 p.m. Once 8 p.m. hits, a lot of people start coming in. I’m usually playing jazzy chill hip hop up until that point, and then I’ll up the BPM and make it a bit more lively. We lower the lights more. The whole restaurant is lit with tea light candles. It’s a cute romantic vibe there.

I have a lot of people coming in from all over the world because we’re at the convention center. We want to make a space that anyone can enjoy, but it’s a really good space for connecting with people. It’s somewhere you can bring a date, you can bring your mom, you can bring a friend. There’s no TVs. I just think it’s a really great space for people to come together and have great conversations. We have a lot of non-alcoholic beverages, too. We want to include everyone.

On the weekends, you get people ordering more citrusy, refreshing cocktails. We’re getting a lot of people who are having a before-dinner drink or after-dinner drink or they’re on their way to somewhere else. Shots are poured a lot more on the weekends. Everyone loves a good shot of tequila.

Our official closing time is 2 a.m., but we do last call about 30 minutes before closing so people can get their drinks and have time to enjoy them before we start turning on the lights and turning down the music. We try to do it a lot with music and lighting changes so that we’re not really disturbing people. People can pick up on those things, subconsciously or not. Once 12:45 hits, I’ll start going back to lower-tempo music. Still fun, but we’re kind of just relaxing rather than trying to pump ourselves up for a night out.

I make all the playlists for Morris. I do seasonal playlists on my Spotify so I can control the music throughout the night just from my phone. If it’s crunch time and I’ve got 20 drinks coming in and I have to put them all on the rail at once, I want something that’s more upbeat to get me going.

Having a good playlist, especially as a bartender, will really help you set your pace. There are a lot of things that can go wrong. You’re working with sharp knives, a lot of glass, you have to work quickly and efficiently, you’re working in a small narrow space with your coworkers walking behind you. Having a good tempo for that night really helps our team work in sync so we’re not running into each other all the time.

Name: Graeson Cully
Age: 29
Location: Allegory
Pronouns: He/Him
Tips: $400
Shift: Usually, it starts off with me going into work around 2:30 p.m. Every single team member has their own individual jobs. Either they are carbonating our cocktails, setting up the bar, getting backups for our batch cocktails, doing silverware, or setting up for library service, which is our waiting room. Around 4:30, we start to get fully prepared for work. At 5 p.m., we usually start busy. We tell folks they should come in as early as possible, so we get packed real quick.

Around 7–8 p.m., we get a bigger rush. Whoever’s working the library is just trying to sell drinks and transfer the orders over to the tables. Usually when 9 hits, we do turnover again. We’re refilling the backups and making sure we’re doing bottle checks.

Around 11, it gets fun. It’s the late-night crowd where people want shooters along with their cocktails. One or two of us will come over and we’ll shoot some bubbles at them while they’re taking shots. We get a lot of people who want more fun, flare-like cocktails that are lit on fire where we add a little flash paper.

Around 1, we get that last push where all the tables are filled up. They get one or two drinks before the last call at 1:30 a.m., so we’re making sure to give them the right experience and the chance to really enjoy the cocktails. A lot of our cocktails take two to three days just to prepare. There’s a lot of clarification. We usually have a lot of our industry friends come in late at night, and we like to treat them well. Usually they want a quick beer and a shot. The other night, someone asked for a mezcal Last Word and a mezcal straight up sour.

*We’re used to the cocktails we make, but I really get excited when people ask for a custom cocktail. We have a great lineup on our menu, but we’re capable of making whatever cocktail you’re looking for. Usually they’ll be like, “I’d like something citrusy with gin or mezcal and I’d like a little savoriness.” I’ve gotten a lot of “not too sweet,” which I don’t mind doing. We like to make sure everyone’s having the drink they really want and make sure their experience is as great as we want it to be. We want them to say, “We’ve got to go back there next week.”

Around 1:30, we basically make sure everyone’s had the chance to do their last-call drink. 1:45 we start doing checks, making sure one well is cleaned out. We keep one open until 2 just in case someone needs to order. Then we clean up both wells and usually get out around 3:30. It’s a long shift, but it’s so busy that it feels quick, which I really enjoy. I just want to constantly keep moving. Whenever it’s slow, it’s the worst shift for me. Luckily for this job, I haven’t had a slow shift. If I get out a little earlier, I try to grab a quick beer and an Underberg. If not, I’ll just go home and order tacos and go to sleep.

Name: [Bartender asked to remain anonymous]
Age: 36
Location: Service Bar
Pronouns: She/Her
Tips: $300
Shift: You kind of see everything. We have happy hour from 5–7 p.m., so we get a lot of people who come in for that. A lot of our regulars who don’t want to be surrounded by crowds come in early, and we chat with them. We have a lot of music venues around us so we keep track of shows and feel the rush before and after concerts if there’s something going on. It’s a good vibe.

I usually work behind the bar, not on the floor, so I just see the sh*t show that can happen. On the weekends it gets pretty crazy. We get a lot of younger crowds later at night that are bouncing around bar hopping, and large groups that come in and out and do shots or rounds of cocktails. Pre-pandemic it was a lot more cocktail-heavy earlier in the evening but later at night was vodka soda hour, but now we’re just making cocktails all night long. I think people are just happy to have a good cocktail. I don’t know what happened during Covid and after, but I swear tequila’s the new vodka.

Music is very important in our bar so we try to match the mood, or if we need to calm the room down a little bit, we’ll play specific songs to manage the flow and the feel. The other day it was kind of nuts, so one of our GMs put on “Kiss From a Rose” at 11 p.m. I was like, “Fine. Calm it down, and then we’ll rev it back up again.”

People just want to hang out and have a good time. We do get a lot of dates any day of the week. They’re pacing themselves because they don’t want to have too many more drinks than the other person. They’re so focused on getting to know each other, and I’m just standing in front of them. It’s not like the bar crowd where you’ll have regulars engage with each other. I try to pay attention and see what the vibe is. If someone’s in the bathroom, I’ll check in on how it’s going.

If I’m an opener, I get in at 3. Doors open at 5. We have two people come in at 7 so there’s typically three people behind the bar — two main people and an apprentice. They help with service and manage the flow while the main bartenders are just cranking out cocktails. If I’m doing bar setup, I’m pulling out all the juices and doing all the garnish prep. If I’m in the back, that means I’m on kegs and batches, so I check keg levels and complete any backup batches. If I need to set any juice for clarification, I do that so we can get a head start on finishing batches. Friday, my shift goes until 12–1 a.m.

If I come in at 7 then I’m there until 4–5 in the morning. There’s a lot of soapy water. We clean every bottle on our back bar, on our wells, everything. We use Slack for communication, so we’ll write closing notes after the bar is clean and reset. We’ll note sales, numbers breakdowns, any 86es, and just significant notes about the evening like, “We held the door for five hours because we were slammed because people were out and about.” Or if we need notes for the openers the next day, “Make sure to refill the liquid nitrogen tank” or “We’re getting a delivery tomorrow; be on the lookout for that.”