The Gentleman’s Guide to Paying a Bar Tab

A long-time bartender explains how to settle up without making your server hate you.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Paying a Bar Tab

If you’ve never tended bar before, the process of ordering, consuming and paying for drinks warrants little thought. It’s what you do when you go out: You ask for a drink, someone makes it for you and then you pay for it. But for those of us taking the orders and making the drinks, the economic exchange at the end of the night can be a brutal slog. I’ve spent seven years behind the bar, and nothing amazes me more than how clueless people continue to be about settling up — and I’ve found women passed out on toilets with pee all over them and had to break up couples trying to hit third base while seated three feet from where I’m pouring drinks.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though — especially if you follow these easy steps…

Keep a Tab Open
Unless you’re paying with cash, do NOT pay as you go. Even if you only have one drink, open a tab. In fact, it’s been estimated that bartenders spend as much as two hours a shift taking and making payments. That’s why many bars have $10 or $20 minimums on credit-card transactions. It’s also why there’s an app that helps bartenders not to have to run the same credit card over and over and over again.

I’ll never forget the guy who ordered a single beer and paid for it with his card — three SEPARATE times. Each time he sauntered up for a drink I asked him if he’d like to open a tab, and each time he said no, doubling the amount of time for each transaction by forcing me to open a new check, enter his order, run his card and print the receipt.

When he made his way back for a fourth drink and handed over his card, I told him if he wanted another drink, he should start a tab because I was only running his card one more time.

He got the hint.

Give the Bartender Your (Last) Name
We may recognize you, but we interact with hundreds of people every night. So ordering drinks and then shouting, “Put it on my tab!” while walking away from the bar means I have to come find you and ask for the identifying information on your tab — i.e., your last name, since that’s how the computer terminals in every bar saves credit-card information.

My co-worker named a cocktail (The Sally) in honor of the woman who ordered every single drink with, “Hi, could I please have another vodka soda? I have a tab; the last name is X.”

That’s all it took to become a legend at our bar — a little common sense.

Venmo Is Your Friend
Ever taken a quick trip to the grocery store, and every line is improbably long? You finally find a shorter line with just one person in front of you. But when they go to pay, they pull out a mangled wad of coupons, split two-thirds of the bill between two credit cards and make up the difference with cash.

That is what having a group of five people split the bill five ways is like.

I know that some people only like to pay for EXACTLY what they ordered when drinking among friends. And I know some people never carry cash. Further, I know the person who picks up the tab doesn’t necessarily want to (or can) pay for the whole thing — they just want to end the incessant debate about how it’s going to be settled between so many people (and so many drinks).

All of which is to say: That’s what Venmo is for.

Don’t Fight Over the Check in Front of Your Server
You want to buy your friends a round or your mother-in-law a glass of Chardonnay? Excellent! But don’t argue about who’s picking up the bill and expect your bartender or server to take sides. It’s basically asking a stranger whose finances are tied to your impression of them to decide something that will greatly color that impression.

To that point, I’m always going to settle it by picking the person who I think is going to tip better.

Never Tip With Anything but Cash
It’s no secret that servers and bartenders make their money via the largesse of the guests they wait on. More than 40 states have a two-tier minimum-wage system, in which restaurants pay tipped employees somewhere between $2 and $4 an hour, burdening the public with making sure that we don’t starve.

That essentially means we want to keep as much of our tips as legally possible.

Therein lies the rub: When a tip goes on a credit card, the amount is automatically recorded by the point-of-sale software, making it taxable income. One of the perks of the industry is that, for all the BS we put up with, we sometimes get to pull one over on Uncle Sam. Cash tips are also immediately accessible — I get to take them home with me at the end of the night instead of waiting two weeks for my paycheck, where credit card tips wind up in a majority of establishments.

Speaking of Tips, a Dollar a Drink Only Works for Beer
Twenty percent of the total bill amount is the standard tipping benchmark, and this carries over to cocktails. That $15 coconut ginger Thai basil concoction you ordered costs $15 largely because it’s a huge pain in the ass to make. In other words, if your group orders four of these monstrosities and the tab is $60, a $4 tip doesn’t cut it.

When You Do Tip with Cash After Paying With a Credit Card, Write ‘Cash’ in the Tip Line
If at the end of the night, when we’ve been on our feet for 12 to 14 hours and are adjusting closed tabs to include tips and see that a pen was slashed through the tip line, or even worse, 0.00 is written in, we’ll hate you. I’d like to say otherwise, but until I make my living another way, don’t leave the impression that you stiffed me. Those are the last names I will remember.

We Can Close Your Check With 20 Percent Gratuity Added if You Leave Your Card Overnight…
Just sayin’.

But at the Very Least, You Should Leave a Little Reward for the Safekeeping of Your Card
If you do have one too many and forget to close out before you leave, ask if a tip’s been included when you come back to collect your card. If it hasn’t, leave a few dollars for the people who took care of you the night before.

It’s the least you can do for getting drunk enough that you ignored the single most obvious rule of drinking in bars: Pay for your goddamn drinks.