Friday, March 18, 2011


Every now and then I hear stories about negative experiences at cocktail bars in Chicago or around the country, and I feel the need to remind my staff and myself why it is we do what we do.

There are so many people working each and every day to earn respect for the bar profession -- rude bartenders that belittle their customers' tastes or try to bully guests into respecting their craft through pretension are setting us all back. Those bartenders can give (and are giving) cocktail bars a bad reputation.

Last year I went to San Francisco with a long list of bars I was dying to visit, with one of the country's most lauded cocktail spots at the very top of that list. We made reservations for early in the evening, planning on spending a good portion of the night there. We got great seats at the bar and looked over the menu -- there were so many great drinks that I couldn't wait to try. Sadly, we only ended up having one round before leaving, our early departure having nothing to do with the quality of our cocktails. The bartender was cold and dismissive, and when he did answer a question, it was with condescension. Ultimately, the bars with the most gracious bartenders and welcoming service staff made the best and most lasting impressions on me -- and those are the bars I recommend to friends and customers visiting San Francisco. I'd never send one of my guests to a bar where the service was poor, no matter how good the drinks are.


Some of the best service we received in San Francisco, courtesy of Erik Adkins at Heaven's Dog.

Of course, I understand that it may have been an off night for that bartender -- I've certainly had those. I also understand what it is like to be busy. However, trying to be as polite as possible is of the utmost importance; most people will see that you are busy and will likely understand that you can't have a lengthy conversation about cocktails at that exact moment. But it is never too busy to be courteous, and if you are the type of person that can have such an 'off night' that you are outwardly rude to the people in your bar, you are probably in the wrong business.

Ignoring people that order a product or cocktail that isn't carried at a particular establishment is another trend that seems to be popping up, and, strangely, seems to be a policy that the staff members at these bars proudly brag about. I've heard stories of bartenders simply turning their backs on customers attempting to order a drink with cranberry juice or requesting that their martini be made dirty. I'm not suggesting that bars carry every product available or make every drink that is ordered, however, I do believe it is a bartender's responsibility to be friendly and offer an alternative. Practicing poor customer service is not only a disservice to your bar, it is harmful to all of the other bartenders that share your profession.

This is the hospitality industry. Many of our guests are able to make cocktails at home, but they chose to come to our bars instead -- to be social with friends, or to try something new. I view the bartender's role as the host of the party: my goal is to make sure the people at my party have a good time and want to return soon. To be the most skilled drink-maker simply isn't enough.


  1. Here, here.

    I normally go to a new bar on slower nights, specifically to get a grasp on their service. My bar at home is fully stocked, but I prefer the mix of social connections and knowledgeable service. Fridays and Saturdays are bad nights overall to expect amazing service, but my favorite drink slingers at least try.

  2. I once ate at an uber-hip restaurant with a wunderkind chef here in Chicago. My table was treated so shabbily (hurriedly dropped plates, no explanation of courses, etc) because, as we learned from that same chef's stage whisper to an adjoining table, there was a 'VIP in the house!' The food was good, even occasionally sublime, but I'll never spend my money there again.

    I'm happy to report I've never had less than stellar treatment at the Whistler. Thanks for all you guys do to make a fancy cocktail lounge seem like a neighborhood watering hole.

  3. as a whistlergoer, i have to say this is what sets you guys apart. the first time i walked in i expected to be condescended to, and i've never been. thanks!

  4. Oh, shoot. This was written after the car ride home from the Dells. Does it count if I KNOW I am a bad and unhospitable bartender and I promise to quit soon? Or maybe it doesn't count cause the bar I work at is the worst ever? Also the drinks I refuse are called things called "blue motorcycles." I did make your lady a couple killer Sex on the Beach(es). With a smile.

  5. Well, your staff is definitely listening from the wonderful time we've had at The Whistler. The difference was underlined by the terrible experience we had at The Boiler Room (where a waiter argued with us when we said we didn't like a drink ...).

    We look forward to returning!

  6. I'll give a hearty second to all these comments about how the Whistler bucks the snooty trend. I'm always amazed at the high level of friendliness and service the whole staff maintains even when the bar is packed on a Saturday night. And when I go in on a weeknight and things are quiet, everyone behind the bar is happy to answer any number of nerdy questions about the drinks.

    Plus, for my money your cocktails are the best in Chicago!