Dollar a Drink or Go Big Up Front: Tipping in Bars
Let’s call him “The Professional.” He was my first kitchen boss, my chef, and when I first started seriously going to bars in my 20s, it was often in his company. He was already an old hand at drinking, having started his career as a bartender in Manhattan—and this was in the bad old ‘70s, when a good tip was illegal powders offered off a burgundy, disco-length pinkie nail. Needless to say, I found his stories unbelievably glamorous because, when these events occurred, ATMs were science fiction; computerized, behind-the-bar POS systems were unimaginable; and bartending was a mentally challenging game of running multiple, unwritten cash tabs, counting olives (to estimate how many martinis he served), and awarding discretionary “buy backs.”
I’ve collected three of The Professional’s many bar tipping theories. I’d love to know—what are yours?
Go Big Up Front. In an establishment crowded with drinkers hanging over the bar like gorillas waving dollar bills, what the serious drinker wants to do is set himself apart from the herd. According to The Professional, the way to do this is by tipping big up front. So, if you’re buying a round that costs $20 (say, a beer and a cocktail), you leave $20 on the bar “to get the bartender’s attention.” This method, tipping at the beginning of a multi-round session, actually supports what many think is the origin of the word “tips.” Apparently, the word is an acronym of the phrase “To Insure Prompt Service”—which makes sense (in this case), since you do it up front. To be honest, I’ve always felt squeamish about Going Big Up Front. I feel leaving that outsized bill on the bar is as vulgar as handing the valet a $50 to illegally park your red Porsche out front on the sidewalk. But The Professional’s GBUF method is echoed by former New York Times Dining Editor/new Restaurant Critic Pete Wells, who goes further and delivers his hefty tip hand-to-hand while pairing it with portentous eye contact. The real wonder here is not that Wells’s method insures prompt service: what’s amazing is that Wells doesn’t creep out the bartender and find himself ejected.
Dollar a Drink. This is another one of The Professional’s theories that I’ve always had trouble wrapping my head around. According to The Professional, and echoed in this piece by former New York Times restaurant critic (and current Op-Ed columnist) Frank Bruni, one dollar per drink is the standard bar tip, and it has been that way practically forever. When left to tip at a bar, I go into restaurant default mode and tip 20 percent; so when the tab for three $12 cocktails and two $7 beers comes out to $50, I’m likely to leave a $10 tip and call it a day. According to The Professional, that’s just my bush league showing: I should have left the $10 on the bar on the first round, then tipped a dollar per drink afterward. What I can’t believe is that the tip should still be $1 per drink whether we’re drinking $4 Happy Hour beers or $20 cocktails of cask-aged bitters shaken with liquors distilled from happy virgins. It just doesn’t make sense.
Buy Backs. If you wanted to see The Professional get heated, you’d ask him about Buy Backs. Because, in his complicated bar economy—where you GBUF to snag immediate refills, then follow with a dollar per drink—all those hefty tips should ensure ample “buy backs.”.
Now, in the event that you spent your life doing something wholesome, buy backs were free drinks served by the bartender after you’ve paid for a few rounds (and tipped well). For the bar owners, the buy back system was a winner: the raw materials for drinks don’t cost much. To offer one free round after three is an effective tactic to ensure that drinking crowds show up in their masses waving bills. But the thing that was so tricky with buy backs is that not everyone received them, even if they drank the requisite number of rounds and had tipped well. The gesture was discretionary, so drinkers received more (and earlier) buy backs if the bartender happened to like you; it also helped if you were his friend, or a regular at his bar. A good bartender operated like a slot machine, doling out enough buy backs to keep drinkers coming back without cutting into profits. But if a bartender were stingy with his buy backs, you wouldn’t find The Professional on one of his stools.
Since my days of drinking four rounds at a bar are mostly over, I don’t know if buy backs still exist (or whether they are, as I’ve always suspected, illegal). In these days of POS systems, regular buy backs would make for challenging accounting. I do know that the buy back system was open to skimming and exploitation—after all, which college student hasn’t heard the phrase, “Dude! My friend is bartending —we can drink free all night!” But buy backs also meant that a skilled bartender could eke out higher profits than quid pro quo pricing (and snag, for himself, greater tips).
But what do you think? How do you tip at bars? Do buy backs exist, and where can we find them? Is a dollar per drink still the going tip at bars—and do you Go Big Up Front?
First of all, don’t get your knickers in a twist. Thanksgiving is just a big, ol’ chicken dinner. Disregard the previous month of Food Channel hysteria that claims that failing one dish in this annual cooking marathon means that Alton Brown will show up on your doorstep and snatch back his Good Eats branded Food Network pans. In most cases (that is, unless your last name is Dufresne), your family tradition doesn’t involve sous vide and spherification. It’s the kind of cooking your granny (and her granny) did, and she didn’t even have a Viking stove. But let’s say that Thursday’s dinnertime finds you with a raw turkey, burnt Brussels sprouts, lumpy gravy, and a bad attitude. Sit down and pour yourself a drink while reaching out to one of these handy helplines.
Frescobaldi Wine Dinner at Tarry Lodge
December 6, 6:30pm
$125 per person, exclusive of tax and tip
From the invitation, “For over 30 generations, the Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi family has produced great Tuscan wines. Their ultra-premium wines come from the exceptional growing areas in the region.” Find the menu and wine pairings below – call 914-939-3111 for reservations
Crostini with Gorgonzola and Speck
Attems Sauvignon Blanc 2010
Pumpkin Soup with Mascarpone and Caramelized Apples
Castello di Pomino Benefizio Chardonnay Riserva 2008
Gnocci with Wild Boar
Pizza with Caramelized Onions and Gorgonzola
Castiglioni Tenuta di Castiglioni Super Tuscan 2008
Castello di Nipozzano Chianti Rufina Riserva 2007
Grilled Ribeye with Aceto Manodori
Castelgiocondo Brunello di Montalcino 2006
Castello di Nipozzano “Mormoreto” Super Tuscan 2006
Biscotti Misti With Dulce du Leche
Castello di Pomino Vin Santo 2005
$125 per person, plus tax and gratuity
The Pause that Refreshes at Fig & Olive
Okay, so now that you’ve freaked the hell out with all that Thanksgiving cooking—which left you slaving for a solid week with all those helplines on redial—it’s time to go bughouse with shopping for all the December holidays. Oh, yessss, folks—it’s doorbuster time, so strap on those elbow pads. You’ve got to get in there and get in the scrum if you really want to have a meaningful family holiday!
Or not. If you find yourself overcome with shopping rage, you can tuck into Fig & Olive in the Vernon Hills Shopping Center. It’s located right in the middle of about a million shops, and offers a chic island of calm in all that crazy. Sit back with a glass of wine, some crostini, or this pretty Provençal Carrot & Thyme soup. The last is garnished with cilantro olive oil and arrives with cumin olive oil croutons—and it’s just the thing for a pause that refreshes.