Mind & Body

The Science-Backed Method for Getting Your Bartender's Attention

If you need any proof that life isn't fair, head over to a crowded bar on a Friday night and wait for your turn to order a drink. Inevitably, you will see some enterprising newcomer float their way up front, magically get the bartender's attention, order, and be on their way in the time it took you to shuffle forward about 3 inches. What gives?

Your Bartender Doesn't Hate You (Probably)

You're not the only one who has trouble getting a busy bartender's attention. It's so common that psychologists have investigated the phenomenon — after all, if we want to have bartending robots, knowing how bartenders and customers interact is essential. In a 2013 study, German researchers recorded real-life interactions between bar patrons and their bartenders. They analyzed all of the various signals that patrons used to grab bartenders' attention and identified the most effective ones.

The most common signals were positioning oneself directly at the bar counter and looking directly at a bartender. The researchers then went back to the lab to show participants quick, three-second snapshots of people making the same signals as they'd seen in the real world and asking them whether those people were trying to order. It turned out that both of the most popular signals — being at the bar and looking at the bartender — were required for participants to take a person's order. Maybe not the most surprising result, but hey, if you were doing this already, now you know science has your back.

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How to Get Better Bar Service

There are more ways you can speed up bar service beyond standing directly at the bar and making eye contact with your bartender. The easiest way to ensure good service is to become a regular. If yours is a familiar face at the bar in question, bartenders are likely to notice your presence a fraction of a second faster than they would a complete stranger. The human brain is constantly sifting through information, and it prefers to hold on to patterns that it recognizes.

While tipping well is one popular method for getting VIP service — and it's certainly the decent thing to do — bartenders stress that you can't necessarily buy their love. Being a customer who's quick and easy to deal with may get you further, especially in a crowded bar. To that end, plan your order before you belly up to the bar, and if it's complicated, write it down on a napkin or type it into your phone to show the bartender so you don't need to shout. If you're with friends and ordering multiple drinks, ask for them all at once, since it's easier for the bartender to make them in one batch. And if it's very busy, you may want to steer clear of complicated cocktails and order something a little simpler. You're likely there for the experience more than the drinks, anyway.

What Doesn't Work?

Anything that implies the bartender is incompetent or unaware is probably not going to fly. Yelling at the bartender is likely to get you mentally booted to the back of the line, and waving money around encourages behavior bartenders generally want to minimize. "If you're the person waving a $20 bill at the end of the bar and saying, 'Hey chief,' nobody likes that," David Wondrich, a senior drinks columnist for The Daily Beast, told The New York Times.

The fact is that a busy bartender is serving a large number of people at any given time. Assuming it takes a minute to prepare a drink, on average, and each person finishes their drink in about 10 minutes, you have a bartender-to-order fulfillment ratio that will generally fall into a Poisson distribution as more customers arrive, others leave, and the number of bartenders working remains the same. The fact that bars generally don't subscribe to queuing strategies the way supermarkets do means that every bar patron is at the mercy of the invisible clock ticking in the bartender's head — but it's still better than taking a number at the DMV.

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You can always bypass the crowd and make your own drinks. For that, check out "The Ultimate Bar Book: The Comprehensive Guide to Over 1,000 Cocktails" by Mittie Hellmich. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Austin Jesse Mitchell December 29, 2016

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