30 Questions with Jack Yaghubian II, Master Bartender and author of the Dim Light Bar Guide

1.) What are five things anyone who walks in a bar should know?
a.) Cash is always better than credit cards.
b.) Know what you want before you get the bartender’s attention.
c.) The customer is not always right, the bartender is always right.
d.) Don’t rearrange the furniture, it clogs the bar’s natural flow.
e.) Don’t stand in the waitress station. It’s amazing. They’ll order their drink and just stand there, it’s as if they went to the grocery store, bought some food then just started making a sandwich at the register.
2.) The customer is never right?
No, it just doesn’t work. You get these bone heads used to taking back an expensive shirt to Neiman Marcus after they’ve worn it five times and spilled wine on it and getting their money back because they’re always right. But they’re not, not in a bar anyway.
Most of your book seems geared toward speeding up the entire bartender/drinker interaction. Why is this so important?
Bartending is piece work. Glorified sweat shop work, The more you accomplish in an hour, the more money you make. It’s also very frustrating when all of the sudden you feel like you are swimming in glue while people are screaming at you because this one guy is taking forever to get his order out.
3.) Can you spot a patron who’s going to be trouble the moment he walks in the bar?
Most of the time. Sometimes just the way they’re dressed, the way they hold their face. Someone who is overly friendly to perfect strangers. A huge tip off is if it’s night time and he’s wearing shades. Right away I think this guy is an asshole. Of course, I always give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
4.) Who are generally the worst tippers?
Professional people, generally referred to as yuppies. They tip ten percent. Irish and English tourists tip poorly, if at all. People dressed in Top-Siders and web belts.
5.) And the best?
Other bartenders, cocktail waitresses, other service industry types.
6.) Bartenders do seem to take care of each other, it’s almost as if there is an informal secret society. True?
DL: There’s a bartender here in town that once said there’s a million dollars here in town that’s doesn’t belong to anybody, it just moves around in the form of tips from one bartender to another. It’s true. You give fellow bartenders free drinks. You’re going to get a good tip from them even if you don’t give it to them for free. If you take care of them, you’re going to get them coming back, and you definitely want them to come back. Plus, they’ll send people to your bar.
7.) Let’s turn it around—what are bad habits bartenders should avoid?
Drinking too much on the job. Showing up hungover or drunk. Everything I thought of as a perk when I first got into this business I now recognize as an occupational hazard.
Beyond the Formica Barricade8.) Am I wrong in not trusting bartenders who don’t drink?
Usually there are two kinds of bartenders, alcoholics and recovering alcoholics. I agree with you to a degree. I do drink on the job, but very tiny amounts. I used to be drunk every night while I worked and it was a lot of fun to yell and interact with the customers but pretty soon you’re drunk every night of the week. It’s a route to wreck and ruin, but it is also a proven formula for becoming the most popular bartender in town—bartend drunk and give the bar away.
9.) Is there such a thing as bartender/customer confidentiality?
Realize that bartenders do talk about customers amongst themselves. I am sometimes surprised what I’ll hear people say. Usually it’s upper middle class people, they consider a bartender a servant, so they’ll say all kinds of very personal things in front of me.
10.) But isn’t there supposed to be a bartender’s code of silence? If a patron treats you like an amateur psychologist, as I’m sure they sometimes do, shouldn’t their dark secrets remain secrets?
You’d be making a mistake. I mean, you more or less become fodder for what cocktail waitresses and bartenders talk about once the doors close.
11.) Do bartenders secretly hate their customers?
Some certainly do. You can develop an anger towards the public. Especially Friday and Saturday nights. On a busy night when you keep getting treated like crap over and over again, you develop a bad attitude. Then there’s other nights when it goes beautifully. Most customers are fine, but there are a lot of idiots. Cops, strippers, cab drivers—anyone who deals with the public often feels the same way.
12.) Do bartending schools have any value?
A little, but not much. You bring that in as a resume and it’s kind of a joke. The schools will place you, but usually in the worst places in town. I have never had a resume. The only way I’ve ever gotten a job is because I know somebody on the staff or the owner.
Sometimes it’s just being at the right place at the right time. It helps if you’re good looking. As far as going and getting a certificate and thinking you’re going to get a good bartending job, generally that doesn’t happen. It’s better to work your way up and learn as you go. It ain’t that hard to make drinks, there’s only a handful. Eventually you pick up the ones you’re gonna have to make.
13.) How do you feel about customers ordering drinks outside the norm?
It just shows me that they don’t know what they’re doing, that they are not really drinkers.
14.) I personally want to try every libation on the planet and I’m going to need your help. How about it?
Yeah, well, there are exceptions. I know some bartenders that are into that, especially the historical ones. There was a guy over at Enrico’s that parlayed that into a job as a consultant for web sites about different bar recipes. I make a point of never looking recipes up in a book, it slows me down. Once the book comes out everyone wants to try something weird and that slows me down more. Tell me what’s in it and I’ll try to make it.
15.) Would you prefer that customers run a tab or pay as they go?
Pay as you go. If you pay after every drink, I can clear my mind. I give you a drink, you give me cash, it’s a very direct transaction. Tabs throw in one more curve and interrupt the natural rhythm. Sometimes people will walk out on tabs. What’s more, I don’t know if I’m going to get tipped on a tab, or how much. I have no idea how to treat you. For all I know I’ll run around making drinks for you all night and at the end you leave me a big goose egg on the tip line. A tab is a promise, cash is the truth.
16.) How do you feel about Tiki drinks? Do you consider them frou frou?
I do consider them frou frou. In the right place they’re fine, some places specialize in them. I don’t get too bent out of shape like some bartenders do.
17.) I order a drink in a new bar and the cost is 4.50. The bartender gives me back a five and two quarters. Is he being deferential or does he assume I’m a cheapskate?
I do that. Working for tips is a weird thing, it’s like panhandling indoors. I don’t like to look like I’m grubbing for money. My rule of thumb is if the change is over 10 percent I give that. For one thing it is faster for me and a lot of people are going to tip 50 cents anyway. Some of them are going to have a few more quarters or a dollar in their pocket anyway, or worst case they are going to ask for change for a five.
18.) In every town there are rumors that certain bars pour bottom shelf liquor into top shelf bottles. Does it happen?
I have never seen that happen and I’ve worked in a lot of different bars and restaurants. I bet in the old days they did. You hear people say bars water down their drinks too, but why would the do that? You can just short pour. You can water it down right in front of them and they don’t know the difference.
19.) You order a drink and watch the bartender give you a short pour—what do you do?
I always drink beer, so that ain’t going to happen. Personally, I’d go to another bar. But why would a bartender do that? It isn’t his booze, unless he’s the owner. I wouldn’t confront them because maybe that’s the way they do things there. I’d go somewhere else or order a beer.
20.) What would a bartender have to do to deserve to be stiffed?
If someone pisses me off I generally tip them the same, but that’s me. If you feel you have somehow been slighted or haven’t been given good service you have every right to stiff the bartender. Maybe I’m prejudiced, but I have a hard time saying anyone deserves to be stiffed.
21.) What’s your reaction when people ask you to make their drink strong?
The thing about them is they’re usually stiffs. People who want something for free usually aren’t the generous type. I pour the same amount I would for anybody else. Usually they’re ordering something in a highball glass, something with a lot of mixer. People don’t realize that if they order a tall drink they’re getting the same amount of liquor as a short drink. I let them know they ordered it wrong. If they wanted it strong, they should ask for a double or just a splash of mixer.
22.) Do the customers that tip the most get served the fastest?
Yes. If you got some guy who’s tipping you well, you’re going to go to him first, if for no better reason than to show all the people around him the way it works. You get what you pay for.
How do you deal with those who stiff you?
I used to yell at them until I learned a better way. When it’s time for their next round I find all kinds of other things to do—wash glasses, go get ice, anything. When I finally get to them after they’ve been cooling their heels for five or ten minutes they generally drop a dollar on the bar. They finally get the idea. Always remember that most of the bartenders wage comes from your tips. If you stiff him, it’s like you’re docking his pay.
23.) How do you feel about the smoking bans that are sweeping this country’s bars?
It annoyed me at first. Most regulars smoke and if they’re standing outside the bar smoking they’re not drinking. I’ve gotten used to it.
24.) A lot of patrons feel a little insecure when they throw down a tip while the bartender is too busy to notice. Should they be?
We’re far more aware than you think, especially when it comes to tips. If you act fast you can almost always give it to him before he moves on. If you’ve been sitting at the bar for awhile and the tip is in front of you, you’re fine. If you’ve just made a trip to the bar for another drink, leave your tip under your empty glass or bottle. It’ll jog his memory. The best way, of course, is to wave off the change or walk away from the bar before he gets back.
25.) The eternal question: How much to tip?
Bartenders generally want a dollar a drink. We don’t always get it, sometimes we get more. If you leave a quarter you might as well be stiffing me. You don’t need to tip on water, cigarettes or matches. If you get a free drink, you should tip at least as much as you would if you paid for it. Ideally you will tip more.
26.) Who gets free drinks and why?
There are five categories of people who get free drinks. 1.) People who work in the bar business, because it’s all part of the exchange/referral system. 2.) Regulars because they spend a lot of money in the bar and help create its personality. 3.) High rollers who spend a lot of money and tip big without being obnoxious about it, because you want them to come back. 4.) Sexy people you’d like to sleep with, because you’d like to sleep with them. 5.) Friends, because, hey, they’re your friends.
27.) Who doesn’t get free drinks?
My rule of thumb is, people who expect a free drink don’t get one, and that goes double for people who ask for a free drink. Stiffs, cheapskates and troublemakers shouldn’t get their hopes up either.
What’s the best way to get 86’d from a bar?
Treat me like a servant or harass the cocktail waitress. Come in stumbling or act weird. There are any number of ways. Do anything to disrupt business or freak out the other customers and cocktail waitresses.
28.) How often does a customer have to go to your bar before you consider himself a regular?
At least weekly. Most regulars are there several times a week if not every day. Some are in there more than I am.
29.) What is the biggest tip you’ve ever received?
One thousand dollars on two different occasions from the same guy. Funny thing is, about a year after the second thousand dollar tip, I 86’d the guy. He worked for Industrial Light and Magic and he was out of his mind. I’ll just say this, he did a special effect in a movie that was quite popular. Anyway, he knew I was also an artist and I guess he felt guilty that he was making so much money doing special effects for movies.
He came in one day, and said, “Jack, I’ve been thinking about this a while.” He pulled out his checkbook, wrote a check and said, “I want you to have this.” I look at it and it was a fucking thousand dollars. I go “Man, I can’t take that,” and he said “Oh no no, I’ve thought about this for awhile and I want you to have it.”
A year later, he said it was about that time of year again and gave me another one. But he slowly went crazy and a year after that I had to 86 the guy for freaking out the waitress and getting into it with a jazz band.
30.) Has bartending stolen some of the fun out of drinking?
Nah. I like to drink. I’m not a hopeless alcoholic, I am a hopeful alcoholic. I walk that razor’s edge.
—Interview by Frank Kelly Rich

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