Recently on Reddit, a thread appeared on r/bartenders that asked what everyone’s favorite venue was to work in. I was interested but didn’t comment because I didn’t feel like being condescendingly berated for voicing my opinion, as is typical on Reddit. I do know bartenders who swear by nightclubs or dives, and who are right at home in a fine-dining atmosphere.
Personally, I’ve worked in a good range of venues, including family restaurants, dives, fine-dining restaurants, and cocktail bars. There are things I’ve loved and hated about each of them. So, whether you’re a starting bartending and wondering where to look, or a seasoned pro who wants to change up your bartending style, here are some pros and cons for each type of venue.
Chain Family Restaurant
Known for their great training programs (that only 5% end up actually applying to their jobs), these are easy beginner venues to start your bartending career because you can make a mistake and neither management nor customers will be mad. “Keep at it, newbie,” they might say. These chain restaurants have quick turnover, high ringouts, and demand a faster pace during peak hours with a lot of quick bills transferred to the dining room. Just hope you get payment before the ninja hostess takes them away – along with your tip.
You learn to multitask with chits with blended drinks, kids’ drinks, and the double scotches for the parents who need something to help deal with the noise. However, there isn’t much room for advancement in these places, no freedom for creativity, and hardly any respect from the industry. You usually hate your life and the birthday songs, but it’s a good start for the resume.
No uniforms, no fake niceties, and minimal cleaning. Sounds perfect. You crack beers, pour highballs and shots, and the only birthday songs you hear have F words in them. The iPod blasts everything from Danzig to Rod Stewart, and your bar mat holds the same shot glass all night (what the hell’s a jigger?), from Sambuca to vodka with nary a rinse in between.
There are still a few of us who remember the glory days of being able to smoke behind the bar so long as it wasn’t over the well. Getting paid to smoke and drink shots? Why would I ever quit? Well, it takes a rare breed to grow old behind those bars, a liver like a shark, and the patience of a daycare worker. You’ll clean up vomit more times than you thought possible (or fair), and if you’re allergic to peanuts, forget it. I know dive bar lifers, and Rod bless them and their 90-year-old guts.
Fine Dining/Wine Bar
As far as product knowledge and customer service, these are the places to learn your craft. They’re resume gold, and the tips, oh the tips. Someone’s always impressing someone, whether it’s date night, wooing clients, or a special occasion. Rarely do you get an unruly customer, and your necktie knot game is at scout leader level. The food is insane and you sample new wines daily, but you’re also paid to take crap from the alpha at the table while smiling and mumbling “yeah good idea” at the couple freshly back from Cabo telling you what tequilas you should stock.
People like to feel important, so bite your tongue when listening to people teach their friends about wine and spirits, even though they couldn’t be more wrong. I’ve never been to war, but I did work in a wine bar when Sideways came out, so I’ve been through some shit, man.
I’ve never worked in one, so I’m going to guess here. The hours are awesome—a 10 p.m. start time seems great—but having a post-shift drink at dawn seems a bit Bukowski-esque.
Your speed will be amazing, and an order taking only thirty seconds can earn a $10 tip. Energy is high and people are having fun; you’ll get a stack of phone numbers. However, the amount of drugs and sexual predators you’ll see will make you hug your loved ones all that much tighter. Making $2,000 on a weekend seems inviting, but I’d be forced to listen to the same Katy Perry song eight times a night, so I’ve decided it’s not for me.
Here you get to make the drinks you see on YouTube and Instagram. You use tools that cost two nights worth of tips on Cocktail Kingdom. It all looks so nice, but get used to hearing customers say stuff like:
“But I don’t like gin, so can you sub it for Grey Goose? Extra dirty?”
“$12 is a little steep for Goose, isn’t it?”
“I’ve never even heard of half these bottles before.”
“Make me something not too strong, not sweet, not sour, yet yummy.”
In large cities these places are awesome because of a steady flow of new customers. But in small to midsize cities, it can be hard to find enough regulars who can afford to be your bread and butter. Working at a special occasion place is nice, but it can make it hard to pay the bills.
Me, I like a restaurant lounge the best—the happy balance of belligerent drunks and snobby look-at-mes. I like the equal importance placed on food, drink, and service. I don’t have to try to keep up with my 21-year-old coworkers, yet I can still have a little fun.
There will be pros and cons wherever you work, so you have to find the spot where you feel at home, where you can utilize your full potential, and where you’re happiest. We have the best job on earth, so let’s all talk about it over a pint at our favorite dive after a shift.