Signs Your Bartender Is Terrible

I've tended multiple bars in lounges, restaurants, and dives up and down the East Coast. And I've been a patron in even more. While every establishment has their own rules, quirks, and policies that dictate the way a bartender does their job, there are some universally held principles that can easily separate the decent bartenders from the ones that are downright terrible. 

Read on for the sure fire signs that indicate you've stumbled upon a truly terrible bartender. 

They don't know how to make classic cocktails

While a great bartender may possess an encyclopedia-like knowledge of every drink recipe under the sun, it's certainly not a requirement of the job. What should be a requirement, however, is that a bartender know how to make the classic cocktails that are ordered in bars the world over. Martinis, Manhattans, old-fashioneds, margaritas, Bloody Marys — the kinds of drinks that are universally known among drinkers, and any bartender worth his or her salt.

If a bartender is truly stumped, reaching for the bar's well-worn copy of Mr. Boston's bar guide is acceptable. What's not acceptable? Telling a bar patron "that's just the way we make it here" when putting Sprite in their vodka gimlet, which is exactly what happened to me recently at the bar of a PF Chang's. That, ladies and gentlemen, was a terrible bartender.

They aren't knowledgable about their product

Just like a server on the floor should be able to describe the flavor of every dish a restaurant offers, it is a bartender's duty to be familiar enough with the flavors of everything they sell behind their bar, especially beer and wine.

A good bartender will know which wines are dry or sweet, which are full or medium bodied, and which beer most closely matches your beloved brand that they don't carry. Bonus points if they can also help you pair your choice with any food you may have ordered. If a bartender is not able to answer these questions, the only acceptable solution is for them to offer you a small taste of the wine or beer you have asked about.

They treat the waitstaff badly

It always makes me bristle when I witness a bartender ignoring or giving attitude to a server who needs their attention. Even if the server is new, and doesn't realize they're supposed to garnish the glass for their drink order, there's a right and wrong way to speak to people — especially in front of guests. Show me that you're being kind and respectful to all of your fellow staff members, and I'll have more respect for you.

Your drink is empty

When I first trained to be a bartender, I learned that I should always ask a guest if they were ready for another drink once their drink is a quarter full, not when it's empty. Not many people want to sit at a bar with an empty drink. Asking a customer if they want a drink at the quarter full mark leaves a bartender enough time to fetch or fix your beverage while the guests take those last few sips. Needing to wave down a distracted bartender who seems surprised you're ready for a refill is a sure sign of a bartender who lacks experience or adequate training. Considering it directly eats away at a bar's bottom line, I'm always surprised when any bar lets a bartender get away with this.

They assume you don't want change

This one happened to a group of friends and me just recently, and it always shocks me when a bartender tries to get away with it. After receiving sub-par service (which included a beer getting half spilled on my friend), he ordered one last beer for $7. The bartender took his $10, and never returned with his change — then tried to act genuinely surprised when he asked about it. Those of us with service industry experience knew this trick, and explained to our buddy what the bartender was doing. Unfortunately, it's these few bad seeds that give a bad name to the majority who are honest.

They scoop ice with their hands or a glass

Ice bins and glass should never mix. One broken glass and you need to completely dispose of all of the ice in the bin, and scrub the bin out. And what about those miniscule little chips of glass that are undoubtedly going somewhere every time the bartender is too lazy to use the proper ice scoop? Using bare hands to scoop the ice isn't any better — bars can be sticky, dirty places. A good bartender isn't taking short cuts when it comes to safety and hygiene.

They want to talk to you about the film they're writing

Dude, unless I specifically try to engage you in conversation, I don't want to hear about your life's pursuits. This would include how you're really a "insert whatever else you do here." I'm also incredibly uninterested in your workout or diet regimen, pictures of your kids, how much you hate working here, and the roles you played in summer stock. I remember a fellow bartender I worked with in Manhattan who would switch the music over to his band's demo tape every time the owner left, convinced his big break was about to walk in the door. He wasn't my fellow bartender for long.

They're using old, nasty garnishes

You may want to give the bartender the benefit of the doubt on this one, after all, they may be working for a cheapskate owner or manager that is forcing them to use those nasty lemon and lime slices that have been sitting around since last weekend. There's also a chance, however, that they're just too lazy to slice up some new ones. This is the kind of bad bartender that keeps a dirty bar in general — stacks of uncleaned glasses, stained bar rags, fruit flies, and all around disorder. If they don't seem like they're at least trying to make an effort to improve the conditions, that's a sign of a bartender who's heart just isn't in the game.

They're ignoring you to chat with other customers

Sure, it's annoying when your barkeep is giving you an unasked for recounting of his days backpacking through Europe, but it's even more aggravating when you can't even get him to glance your way because he's found someone cooler to talk to across the bar. Your bartender may be hitting on the hottie nibbling on pretzels, visiting with friends who came in for a free round when the boss isn't looking, or simply kissing up to regulars who are big tippers — any way you slice it, if it means my drink is sitting empty, it's a sign that this bartender isn't exactly on top of his game.

They aren't familiar with the food menu

Just like a bartender should be familiar with the beer, wine, and booze on offer in their bar, the same holds true for any food the establishment has available on their menu.

I was at a hipster oyster bar on the Jersey Shore a few weeks back. My girlfriend and I ordered a bottle of white wine, and two each of all the oysters on the blackboard menu. The bartender plopped the tray of pricey oysters in front of us, and walked off to chat with co-workers, with no explanation to us of our oysters. Certainly not the norm for a place that specializes in oysters. We dug in anyway, and when he eventually returned, we told him we had some questions about the favorites on our tray. He stared blankly at us for a moment, then said with a huff, "Well, hand me one, and I'll see if someone in the kitchen can figure out which it is." With about ten other places to get oysters in that town, we likely won't be returning anytime soon.

They won't stop looking at their phone

My bartending years were long before the age of smartphones. I remember all too well those zone out periods during a slow shift, when the only things you could do to pass the time were shine glassware, slice limes, and stare at bad college sports on the television. So the appeal of crushing candy while waiting for a small handful of customers to need anything from you is appealing, I am sure. But I implore you, bartenders of today, fight the urge. Despite the fact that it just looks completely unprofessional, you may be missing out on some actual human interaction to brighten your day, and a chance to look good in front of your boss to boot. Keep the phone handy to look up some quick bar-talk trivia, but other than that, keep the phone out of the equation.