There was a time when a bar wasn’t just a place to get sloshed. It was a place citizens went to discuss their communities, where local culture and politics got hashed out over long pours and late hours. Folks went to the bar to get news along with their whiskey—and anyone living in the United States in 2018 can see the merit in that pairing. The bar was even the place some people went to get their mail.
Once upon a time the bar was smack-dab in the middle of American society. It was a place where people learned how to behave themselves.
But has etiquette behind the bar really changed in the last few decades? I posed the question to two of my favorite barfolk on Earth. Both have a wide swath of experience—from cocktails to beer slinging—and they do both in New Orleans, a town that knows something about decorum and booze. “In a sense it’s the same as it ever has been. People are there for something and they want it promptly, at least with some modicum of politeness,” says Nicholas Jarrett, who can be found mustering that politeness at two New Orleans institutions, Cure and The Saint. “I think, again, for customers it’s more important now than ever that bartenders be able to gauge what individual guests are looking for, in terms of introductions to people around them and so on.”
“I’d say that the introduction of cell phones as a really common, ubiquitous device has really changed the dynamic of room conversation,” says Rhiannon Enlil, bar manager at French Quarter favorite The Erin Rose. Enlil is one of those bartenders who effortlessly owns every room she’s in, no matter how rugged or genteel. “When I started in 2001, people had cell phones but they were usually flip phones. Nobody text messaged. That wasn’t really a thing. So people were able to hold a conversation, and they sort of learned that barroom conversational etiquette that you know now all these years later. Younger drinkers don’t have that experience, and so there’s a lot of awkwardness when people try to interact with strangers. It can get a little awkward because there’s a sense of general apprehension that wasn’t there before. People can always retreat into their screens.”
The intense gravity of the small screen pulls in all directions -it’s not just customers in 2018 who find themselves sinking into its black hole.“And it drives me nuts to see bartenders on their cellphones tending bars,” says Jarrett. “People will be in bars fucking around on their cellphones while they’re being asked to order. These are minor points of etiquette that affect everyone in the room.”
At its best, etiquette is a formalized expression of empathy and its absence belies a gross lack of fucks regarding those who share your space. Amid the throngs of Saturday night, when the crowded bar is six deep, there is always a credit card-waving customer who nevertheless turns his back when it’s time to order: “Hey, what did you guys want again?” There is the patron nearby, glaring with the heat of a thousand suns, who upon getting her very much desired mezcal-and-soda before a dozen desperate peers, suddenly stares at her wallet like she’s forgotten what money is or how it works.
These folks have lost touch with their fellow drinkers in a fundamental way, just as much as the grumpy-ass, barely pubescent bartender scowling and ignoring your order. On some deep level, all of these people have put themselves above everyone else, and thus drifted into awfulness.“Everywhere has gotten a little more hardline when it comes to the drinking age,” says Jarrett. “So whereas a lot of people in the past had experience drinking a bit younger, it’s a lot harder in this day and age for someone who is not 21 to step inside a bar. So bar socialization is starting a little bit later on.”
“I was always trained—and I still hold myself to this—to greet people when they walk in. Eye contact with everyone who walks in. And to say hello, say, ‘How are you?’—having those interactions first before it becomes a business transaction,” Enlil says. “Sometimes you’ll get these people walking in and they’ve already kind of pre-researched what it is that they’re looking for and they just sort of beeline past all of the niceties. Specifically in New Orleans and I think generally in the South, you had a warmth of courtesy and I feel like sometimes that has gotten yanked away from us. I know that when I walk into a bar as a patron if I don’t get eye contact from the bartender or the server—if I don’t get a “How’s it going?” with some modicum of sincerity—I feel like this is just a robotic exchange. I might as well be going to Walgreens to buy a beer.”
The truth is it doesn’t take a ton of work to be polite in bars. It takes a little awareness and a little empathy, and the basic common sense to ward off being an asshole. It’s clear that 2018 is a different world than the one of those glorious public houses of yore. Whether we’ve really taken a nose-dive or not in the art of civility, the first step toward getting better is patience and having the desire to try. Etiquette is as much a craft as the perfect Old Fashioned, and one the world needs far more desperately.