Ask The Salty Waitress: How should I tip at an open bar?

Illustration for article titled Ask The Salty Waitress: How should I tip at an open bar?
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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.

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.

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?


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.


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.




I spent a long time bartending, including a lot of catered events and open bars. Let me tell you:

Tipping big at the beginning. Or at any point. Does not constitute an “arrangement” with the bartender. And is unlikely to buy you good will. We aren’t robots, and we arent children. We *know* what you’re up to.

Neither does asking the bartender’s name. Cause that’s creepy bro. I’m not sure where people got the idea that asking restaurant staff personal questions, or using their name automatically gets an “in”. But it’s wrong. Both these practices tend to annoy people. And the more obvious it is that your trying to get special treatment the more it puts people off.

Properly running a bar shift involves serving people quickly in the order they show up. Think about it this way. If you “tip big” on the first visit and expect to be served more promptly as a result. But so does the next guy. And the next guy. And the next guy. Who do I serve first if you all show up at the same time? Because seriously so many people do this shit.

Not tipping or acting like an ass will get you snubbed. But particularly in a cater situation staff’s ability to do that is limited. And if you aren’t putting anyone off. Well, wait your turn. No one thinks they can impress the usher to jump the line at the movies, why does that change at the bar?

Want an “in”. Want to get preference? Be a nice person and treat the staff like people. With respect. The saying thanks part is the only bit of that that’s likely doing anything for you. In a non open bar situation if anyone gets priority it’s regulars, or at least regulars people like. Because staff *know them*. And get along with them. And want them to stick around. Just be nice, polite. Tell jokes. Stay out of the way when it’s busy. Like dealing with anyone else (provided that’s how you deal with anyone else). Don’t ask long series of probing personal questions, don’t be rude. Don’t try to grift anyone. Don’t act special, the person standing next to you deserves to get his drink quickly just as much as you do.

As for tipping. Tip once at the beginning of the night. Just toss $10 or $20 on the bar. No one has small bills at these things. And if you don’t tip at the start you’ll forget. Because people are always drunk at these things, and they always forget. It’s easier for you, it’s easier for staff. And everyone understands how it goes. Plus a couple bigger bills in the tip cup guilts your friends into tipping. If you have smaller bills/remember it’s not a problem to tip as you go. Typically $1 or so a round or per drink depending on how many bills you have on hand (again people understand its not like there’s an ATM at your friend’s wedding).

Doesn’t matter for the most part if there’s a tip cup. Many people booking catered events won’t allow staff to put them out because they don’t like the look of it. Doesn’t mean they’re not taking tips, and too many people assume it does. Not allowing tip cups at your catered thing means the staff makes less money. A catered event at anything but a catering hall typically involves a tip from the total bill to staff. But share to the bartenders might not be great (10% of the tip for service bar last place I worked). And whoever’s paying commonly tips the bar staff direct as well. So while you don’t want to skip tipping if you don’t have to (say forgot cash), the pressures off a bit.

Catering halls or catering staff working off site. Pays a lot different. I’ve done very little of that. Shift pay is commonly much higher. When I used to bartend private poker games it was $25/ hour. Advertised rates tend to start at $17 for bartenders. Some times it’s lump sum per event and it can vary, $150 is a common rate for short parties but I’ve been offer up to $500 for long events. Whoever’s paying commonly tips there as well. And tips are less common than events at restaurants. Far fewer people think to do it. But leaving a couple of bucks every round or so is appreciated. Exact circumstances vary so much event to event I just follow the same protocol I outline above. I tip once at the beginning at the same rate I would anywhere else.