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Normally I'd be here for an escape, or, on a late summer Sunday, to catch the next episode of AMC's hit series "Breaking Bad," which Claude gladly screened for a few of us Rose veterans every week last season. But tonight I'm here with a very specific question: How can I, as a patron, make a bartender's night better? Claude doesn't hesitate with his initial answer.
"Tip heavily," he says.
I'm looking for something more, something that can inform Missoula as a whole on what really sets off the guys and gals pouring our favorite drinks.
"Not acting like a child is a big thing," says the guy on my right, a bartender from another popular local establishment who agreed to talk candidly with me on the condition of anonymity. For my purposes here, I'll call him Tyrion.
"When people get drunk, they're like children," Tyrion continues. "And bartending is basically a practice in babysitting adults."
I can't help feeling embarrassed by the comment. Over the years, I've certainly acted like a child while cutting loose. I've danced on bars, had friends 86'd from various establishments, forgotten to tip. But the wild stories have become fewer and further between since college. It's occurred to me that, while I might have fun acting like an idiot now and then, someone else is paying for that idiocy.
"Missoula likes to get fucked up," Tyrion says, adding that people here tend to party even harder than the Midwest metropolitan area where he grew up. "Honestly, I think Missoula has a problem with that."
Tyrion recalls one particularly irritating incident. A young, drunk woman began dancing on chairs—something that, for her safety more than anyone else's, Tyrion needed to put a stop to. When she refused the first few polite requests to sit down, Tyrion had to gently coax her off the chair. She complied, but it really put a crimp in Tyrion's night.
"Bartenders can tell when you're on drugs," he says, adding that alcohol was clearly not the only factor in this woman's behavior. "And they will stop serving you when you're messed up."
I turn to Claude and ask about buying shots for bartenders. It happens a lot around Missoula, and patrons seem to think it's a hip thing to do by way of a "thank you."
"I always say, buying a bartender a shot is a bit like buying a whore a piece of ass," Claude says, laughing. Tyrion adds that, while it may feel cool, getting a bartender a drink really isn't. It can actually be kind of annoying, he says. Depending on the bar, it can even get someone in trouble.
So what makes a bartender happy? Lots of stuff. Clearing glasses off your table can ease the night, particularly at bars that don't have a bar-back. Calming down angry or emotional friends is a big plus—stepping in early can prevent a fight from breaking out, and keeps the bartender from having to get involved. "There are people who get drunk and get into fights," Claude says. "Why? That's ridiculous. Drink and laugh. You paid for it."
It's no easy job standing behind the bar. Bartenders have to learn when to stop serving folks who are visibly intoxicated. And the job gets extremely emotional too. Patrons—particularly regulars—tend to share really tough stories, Tyrion says. In that sense, bartenders are almost like psychologists. And if there's one thing Claude hates more than anything, it's inhospitable people working in the hospitality industry. He goes so far as to equate the relationship between a bartender and a patron to that of a doctor and a patient. "It's all about confidentiality," he says. In other words, there's a trust that goes both ways.
So why do it? Why subject oneself to the name calling, the broken glasses, the fights and the drama? "When it's a good job, it's fun," Tyrion says. "When it's a pain in the ass, you're a babysitter. But as a bartender, you feel like the life of the party. You're the host."
It doesn't hurt that the pay plus tips is good enough to work three and a half days a week and still make rent, he adds.
For Claude, the motivation to sling beers extends to all aspects of life. He enjoys getting to know people on a first-name basis, for one, he says while sliding another PBR in my direction. And working nights enables him to spend his days writing, golfing and hanging out with his son. "I feel like this is my purpose."
I couldn't agree more. Not many bartenders would host a "Breaking Bad" viewing party for eight straight Sundays and spend every hour talking plot points.
"Everything in a bar is constant," Claude says. "The chairs, the bottles, the jukebox ... The personality of the bartender, that's the variable."
I close out my tab, making sure to take Claude's advice. I tip heavily.
Q: Do you tip for carry-outand if so, what's the proper amount?
A: Yes, no matter what, according to everyone we spoke with. The answer of what to tip ranges from 10 to 20 percent. "Ten percent for to-go, even at Subway," says Tao Rohitsathain at Sa Wad Dee. "That's what I do."
Q: There's a problem. What's the safest way to send back your food?
A: All that talk of the kitchen taking out its frustrations on your sent-back burger is a bunch of bologna. "You just talk about it. You never do it," says one chef.
The key is to politely communicate with your server. Lauren Ramundo at The Shack Cafe says there's often an easy remedy and the restaurant would always prefer not to send you home grumbling. "Things happen—toast isn't toasted enough, you miss the butter ... and eggs are eggs," she says, referencing that people are particular about the latter.
Q: Is it true that you shouldn't order a restaurant's special on a Monday, because that's when they're clearing out leftovers?
A: False. Most restaurants we spoke with denied this is an issue. "I think that's kind of a myth," says Caitlin Cast, a cook at Sushi Hana.
Q: Is there anything more awkward than the tipping situation with those flip-over iPad checkout thingies?
A: If you've ever been to El Diablo or a few other local restaurants, you know what we're talking about: At checkout, the cashier flips over an iPad that asks if you want to tip 10, 15 or 20 percent, customize your tip or skip the tip altogether. We're in favor of generous tips, but for some this system triggers an uncomfortable moment of pressure and fear of under- or over-tipping.
El Diablo counterperson Jenna Beck says not to worry. The new technology initially surprised some customers"everyone's was definitely amazed by it"but they eventually get used to it. Tip a buck for a burrito and you'll be just fine.
Q: Is substituting items a jerk move? What about ordering off the menu?
A: James Bar server Kelly Fullerton says it's okay to ask for menu substitutions—or even order something that's not listed—as long as you accept the fact that the restaurant can't always make the desired changes. "As long as you have realistic expectations," she says.
Others were less forgiving, especially about ordering off the menu. "Trust the people cooking your food," says one local chef. "You're eating out for a reason."