Photo: milanvirijevic (iStock), Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio
The Salty WaitressSalty Waitress is The Takeout’s advice column from a real-life waitress that will teach you how not to behave like a garbage person while dining out—and maybe in real life.  

Dear Salty: Often around the holidays, or throughout the year at weddings and events, we are commonly at an open bar. Most open bars in my experience fall short with bartenders, resulting in extra long waiting time for a drink. To skirt around the slowness, I usually tip the bartender at least $20 on my first round, ask them their name, and thank them for the drink. Most times, if I belly up to the bar for the rest of the event, two or three people deep, that bartender will pour me a drink with minimal or no wait. I’ll even give an additional tip on the second or third round, because it’s clear we have an arrangement, and will sometimes ask for multiple drinks for friends with less patience for waiting. I’ve always felt it better to over-tip in advance than to just be a nice guy in tips as you go or afterwards.

What are your thoughts? 

GMS from NJ 

Dear GMS,

Let me state for the record that I love any email from a reader in New Jersey who claims to “have an arrangement” with a guy. Wink wink, nudge nudge, stogies and Goodfellas and all that. Classic.

Okay, so to your question… When you’re at an open bar, you have three tipping options, like you mentioned—but actually, it’s four:

  • Don’t tip at all
  • Tip as you go
  • Tip at the end
  • Tip big at the beginning

Yes, sometimes it’s okay not to tip at an open bar. If the bartenders haven’t clearly set out tip jars, they might have their gratuity for the night included in whatever the hosts paid for the event (this is especially true at weddings). If you want to be generous and try to hand the bartenders a tip, they usually won’t turn it down. But some will—it could be a venue policy—and then you’ll just have to keep that cash in your wallet, moneybags.

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As for the other three tipping options, there are pros and cons to each.

Tip as you go

This is the most common practice, and it will earn you goodwill with the bartender, since hey, a tip is a tip. Throwing a buck or two per drink into the jar each time will be appreciated and will likely get you a drink faster than the guy who doesn’t tip at all.

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Tip at the end

I don’t get the logic of this. If you’re going to tip, why not do it by the drink or in the beginning so you can reap all the sweet attention and slightly-more-generous wine pours?

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Tip big at the beginning

Like you said, this goes a long way to getting an “in” with your busy bartenders. They’d be stupid not to give you priority going forward, and most will. (No need to ask their name or life story, though, especially if they’re really busy.) Of course, your early tip isn’t a written contract or anything, so you’re still at their mercy.

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If it were up to me, I’d suggest a more generous tip in the beginning, followed by maybe a buck or two on each round going forward, as you’ve been doing. For maximum impact, make sure that initial tip comes in the form of a round bill—a $5, $10, or $20—rather than a collection of singles so the bartender can fully see your uh, generosity. (To those in the comments who are going to say I always suggest tipping more: 1) Yeah, I probably do, but this is my perspective and 2) You’re at an open bar with free drinks—spread the love, guys.)

One thing I would suggest to you, though, pal: Don’t rattle off an order of five to six drinks for your friends each time you hit the bar. Grabbing an extra one for your date, or even two extra for your date and a friend is okay, but if you’re putting in an eight-drink-long order, you’re screwing up the bartender’s flow, no matter how big you tipped in the beginning.

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