Dear New York City Bar Patrons,
It’s me, your trusty bartender. We need to talk about our relationship since COVID.
For a few of us, bartending is a career; maybe even a calling. For the rest, it’s a job. Regardless of the motivation, there’s no denying that the way we turn a buck occupies a unique space in American culture.
“We work in a very interesting industry where, yeah, it’s all about fun. But, y’know, in that fun, there’s a lot of risk,” says Dan, 37, who is a 20-year service industry veteran and manager/owner/cocktail wizard at West Village spot, Bandits. “You have to look out for people as a bartender.”
But COVID flipped the world upside down. That includes us. “One of the first rules [bartenders] always hear is, ’no politics, no, religion in a bar,’” Dan says. “That went out the window because we were forced to kind of be the liaisons of the rules.”
Almost overnight, we were effectively deputized COVID compliance officers, shoved onto the front lines. “That created definitely a weird balance where we were forced–or asked to–police our customers a little extra in order to keep the liquor license,” Dan says.
“We’re here to serve, but we’re nobody’s servant. Don’t agree? There’s the door.”
“We used to call it lifeguarding,” says Elizabeth, who’s spent 11 of her 32 years behind the stick and now slings drinks at a popular downtown Manhattan venue. “I always joke that I should have had a whistle…we were now not only the server, buser, bartender, host, but also security.”
And in that first year or so, when no vestige of “normal” life could be taken for granted, you didn’t keep your appreciation for us a secret. “There was a period of time where guests were generally a lot more patient and a lot more generous and a lot more thankful for what we were doing and understanding the risks behind it,” Elizabeth says. Indeed, at first, you treated us and our work as essential.
“[Patrons] were just excited to see me,” says George, 44, bartender of 13 years and affable stalwart at Double Windsor, a Park Slope staple. “It was like, ‘oh, if he’s still around then surely we’ll be able to make our way out of this.’”
But it feels like your conscientiousness is ebbing with the viral tide. “That level of goodwill that we had this first, like, 18 months of [the pandemic]—I’m not saying it’s out the window…” George says, careful not to paint with too broad a brush. But, he says, chuckling, “If you were a dick before COVID to bartenders, you’re probably a dick again.” He notes the grim reemergence of finger-snapping and hand-waving for attention.
Our job is to give you what you want, but we’re not obliged to sacrifice our dignity or safety or judgment. We aim to accommodate you, but that’s at our discretion. Kind words are nice, but compliments don’t pay the rent. We’re here to serve, but we’re nobody’s servant. Don’t agree? There’s the door.
“We’re just kind of back to the baseline,” Elizabeth says. “We’re just service staff. And it kind of feels like all that stuff we went through the last couple of years–you know, the banging of the pots and pans–What does it really mean if at this point, we’re just back to treating each other a little less than human?”
Ultimately, what I’m asking is this: before you get impatient, before you feel owed, before you presume that you could do our job, before you calculate our tip–pause. Breathe. Reflect on what a privilege it is to enjoy a drink comfy and safe among friends, the grief you felt when it looked like you may never do it again; and the fact that the person most grateful to see you back in the saddle, well, we’re standing just across the bar.
The writer, Julien Levy, has spent almost a decade as a bartender in and around Park Slope at bars such as Lowlands, Adirondack, Abilene, Skylark and Halyards and fills in at bars where needed.