Women like me don’t spend any time trolling on-demand channels for gentle pornography, so I know nothing about HBO’s docu-smut series Cathouse.
I cannot do a spot-on impersonation of Air Force Amy. I do not favor the fleshy Isabella Soprano above all other bunnies. I definitely don’t have an opinion about Max’s descent from chaste chess-playing courtesan to raggedy, black-lunged trick. I don’t watch the show, is what I’m saying. Women like me don’t do that.
Actually, no. I’m infatuated with Cathouse and all of its trashy time-warp pleasures (turns out hoe fashions don’t change much, making it tough to divine whether the episodes were shot last year or in the mid-90s). The most compelling aspect of the series may be the rather prudish discourse about money among its stars. Specifically, what a guy’s gotta lay out to party with one of these Jezebels. No one is talking: The topic of rates is hazy territory in the culture of working girls, who know better than to put an explicit ceiling on what a client might pay for their company.
Everyone has a different yardstick, and there’s no common wisdom to rely upon. Tip too little and you’ve marked yourself a miserly rube. Tip too much and you’re showboating.
The same crepuscular curtain, it turns out, seems to fall when discussing the matter of tipping with a modern-day craft bartender. Not the guy who cracks your PBR at the dive bar. We’re talking about the guy with the mesmeric shake—the one who labors over the constellation of angostura bitters atop your pisco sour, and slides each of his alchemical masterpieces to you across the bar, proud and imperious, like he’s the first person to synthesize LSD. What the hell do you tip this dude?
Everyone has a different yardstick, and there’s no common wisdom to rely upon. Tip too little and you’ve marked yourself a miserly rube. Tip too much and you’re showboating. It’s enough to make you want to go home and curl up with a box of tissues and Hof’s Birthday After Party on DVD.
And we don’t want that. Herein, some guidelines to keep in mind next time you’re long-hauling at the cocktail bar.
Next: the six keys to tipping like a pro…
Dismantling the dollar-a-drink rule. The dollar-a-drink axiom is as dated as the appletini. Would you tip a dollar a dish at a full-service restaurant? If so, tell me: What’s it like to be punched in the face? At the cocktail bar you’re enjoying a high-level of craftsmanship and attention—the bartender is often preparing and serving your order, and over the course of an evening, he is spending measurably more time tending to fewer customers than he would at a beer-and-shot dive. You should tip accordingly. As at a restaurant, consider 20% your baseline and let it rise from there based on your experience. Also, consider that you may wish to return to this bar, and would like to be remembered fondly. Largesse has a way of making memories. And on that note…
Set a generous precedent. Buying one round of beautiful $14 cocktails for you and a consort? Are you planning on visiting the place again? Then tip well on your first outing. You’re signaling to your barman that you understand and respect his craft. The best of the bunch will commit your face to memory, and perhaps even reward your patronage with a drink on the house, a shot of the good stuff before you head home or simply a higher level of service throughout the night. If you’re sticking around awhile, you’ll want to drop a credit card—you’ll make it easier on the staff if you open a tab, rather than buying piecemeal rounds—and follow the gratuity game plan of 20 percent or more.
Don’t linger without a drink. Cocktail bars tend to be tinier than high-volume saloons, which means that when you’ve claimed a stool, the use-it-or-lose-it rule applies. Try to be conscientious about loitering if you aren’t ordering or finishing drinks—remember that you’re occupying a spot that someone else might use to spend some money. If you’d like to stick around, and you aren’t buying more booze, be sure to tip in kind as a courtesy to acknowledge the bartender for his time.
On the occasion of a comp. Prove yourself a mannered, generous, and frequent patron of a cocktail bar, and you may eventually find yourself on the receiving end of a comped bill. First you’ll do this. Then you will humbly accept the gift—”please” and “thank you” are woefully under-utilized in the bar setting—and leave a liberal tip. Don’t trip at the finish line, guy: The key here is to tip in kind, but not so extravagantly that it nullifies the gracious gesture. Run through what your bill would have totaled, and leave half or more of that in cash for the staff.
And if you can’t afford to tip… Don’t go to the cocktail bar. As the craft cocktail industry grows, it is increasingly common that the folks behind the bar aren’t simply lining their coffers while they go on auditions or drifting through summer break from liberal arts school. Cocktail bartenders are often skilled practitioners of a culinary art form—serious, often scholarly, professionals who consider craft bartending a career path. But they don’t make a livable wage, and—though it is a highly physical line of work—many of them don’t have insurance. Your handsome tip is as much an expression of gratitude for good service as it is an outlaying of support for the future and health of great, fun, and well-staffed bars. If you can’t buy into that future, then at least consider that your date may be watching as you settle your tab, so you don’t want to expose yourself. Everyone knows a stingy tipper is a stingy lover.
In the event of bad service, don’t tip. As important as rewarding thoughtful, courteous service is withholding or curbing gratuity when you’ve been mistreated. That said, the onus is on you to express your displeasure before the check comes. Give the staff a chance to make it right, rather than expressing your discontent in passive aggressive ways: in a poor tip or, worse, on Yelp (ugh, Yelp). If you are straightforward about your frustrations, the hospitality pros may go out of their way to make it right. If your night doesn’t turn around, then it’s time to make a point with your wallet.
Jordana Rothman is a Brooklyn-based writer who most recently served as Food & Drink editor at Time Out New York. Follow her on Twitter: @jordanarothman.