The Service Bar

The Unsung Heroics of the Service Bartender

“Which side of the bar are you working: service or personality?” A bartender friend told me he and his cohorts would ask each other this question before every shift, referring to the difference between working the service end of the bar or the main stage. In busy cocktail lounges, upscale restaurants, and high-volume bars, at least two bartenders are usually slinging drinks at a time. One is assigned to serve guests seated at the counter where chitter-chatter is an expected garnish (the personality), and the other is responsible for churning out cocktails for hungry guests in the dining room, typically from a tiny crevice at the end of the bar. Most of the time when you order a drink at a table in a restaurant with a decent cocktail menu, it’s made by the service bartender.

The service bar is one of the most congested and chaotic areas of any bar or restaurant, even when it’s well-organized and functioning smoothly. Servers crowd the area anxiously awaiting their drinks like brain-eating zombies. In sit-down restaurants, most diners expect to be served their first drink before they consider the menu, which means that any delays in the arrival of their drinks are a clusterfuck. Responsibility for making those drinks, sometimes including orders for large parties, falls on one individual — not only to make delicious cocktails, but also to make them quickly. When tables need to be turned for the next seating, a service bartender’s failure to keep up can be as destructive as a kitchen meltdown.

“Working service,” as many bartenders call it, is a thankless job. “It’s the most vital position that nobody wants to work,” says Jabriel Donohue, who’s tended bar in Seattle for years and now co-owns a hospitality group based in northwest Washington. “The service bartender helps maintain the illusion that the main bartenders can effortlessly put a drink in everyone’s hand,” Donohue adds. (He recently wrote an essay about dive bars for our site.)

Making drinks is only half the battle. Service bartenders spend the night yelling for someone to bring more ice. Glassware is always running low, and the ones coming straight out of the dishwasher are too hot to use. The barback is AWOL, probably in the employee bathroom checking his phone again. Some drunk douchebag is standing in the pass blocking the area where the waiters pick up their drinks, waving a twenty around like he’s in a strip club. Service bartenders can’t afford distraction, or they’ll fall behind and get buried.

The service bartender keeps the trains running on time.

Despite how important the service bar is to a restaurant’s flow, however, the service bartender often plays second fiddle to the front bartender. You won’t see anyone throwing martinis or flaming orange peels on the service end of the bar. Working service requires building three or four drinks at a time, two-handed stirring and shaking, and learning to juggle incoming tickets with the dexterity of a short order cook. “Working service is where the cracks in your technique or sometimes just your conditioning are most likely to show,” Donohue, who’s worked as a bartender in the Seattle area for years, says. Many of the world’s finest mixologists collapse behind the service bar because service bartending works a totally different set of muscle groups.

Some bartenders prefer the chaotic zen of working service because it spares them having to interact with guests. Others hate it because it can be a relentless and stressful shift. Assignment to the service end of the bar is sometimes treated as punishment for tardiness or poor performance. Many bars also have an unspoken hierarchy or pecking order where rookies—or the least experienced team members—are assigned to work service while seasoned veterans commandeer the front bar.

There’s no glamor or glory working service, but a well-executed service bar keeps the trains running on time and makes a robust cocktail program possible in a large restaurant space. On any given night, the service bartender might make up to 5-10 times as many drinks that come from the front bar, sometimes more in high-volume restaurants.

Donohue believes that competency behind the service bar may be the truest test of a bartender’s skill. He thinks bartenders should hone their craft working service before being called up to the big show. “The service bar should the second to last step on the way to working the main bar,” he says, “because every bartender’s hands need to be able to move at least as fast as their mouths.” You won’t see these types of skills tested on Drink Masters because service bartending isn’t sexy. But Donohue insists that having someone skilled behind the service bar is vital to a restaurant’s successful operation. “It’s just you and the ticket printer and god help you if you fall behind or even worse, get sloppy and start putting out substandard drinks,” he says. “There’s no way to fake it in the service well. You either make it or you don’t.”

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The Service Bar

When Is a Dive Bar Truly a Dive?

In July of this year, Rolling Stone published an article about pop star Olivia Rodrigo’s impromptu performance at a “U.K. dive bar” called Bunny Jackson’s. The meticulously branded Manchester club is slathered in tropes of Americana: bourbon, cheap wings, and an unhealthy obsession with corrugated siding. “I’m dead sober,” Rodrigo told the audience, seemingly self-aware of the strangeness of this moment set against the dive bar backdrop. Must a person be drunk to be in a dive? Of course not. But the comment seemed to underscore the awkward tension between Bunny Jackson’s shabby-chic marketing scheme and the hard-won authenticity of an earnest dive.

The question of self-defined dive bars came up for me again in September when Food & Wine published an article titled “NYC’s First Sober Dive Bar is a Very Good Time.” A video on the magazine’s Instagram page shows off a quaint and kitschy Manhattan spot with bar mats branded by Aperol Spritz and Deep Eddy Vodka, despite having a back bar stocked exclusively with non-alcoholic spirits. These alcohol-free products have become a legitimate part of the conversation for most serious bar programs in America, but there was something about the “sober dive bar” moniker that I found grating. Again, it wasn’t the focus on sobriety that bothered me as much as its using the allure of a dive as a marketing ploy. Whether a sober space lends itself to being a dive bar is probably a much larger conversation.

To be called a “dive bar” is a dubious honorific. The title appears to have originated from the eponymous Dug’s Dive, founded sometime in the early nineteenth century in Buffalo’s Canal District by William Douglas, or “Uncle Dug.” It was a filthy and often dangerous place by today’s standards, but it was also a place of refuge. Dug, a former slave, was known for providing food and shelter to Black men in need. After the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, that need could be very real, and “dives” like Dug’s were places where the well-heeled were unlikely to travel and police would pay no mind. This act of charity and community along the fringes of polite society unknowingly set the foundation of what would define dive bars in the modern era.

dive bar street view

Dive bars are deeply loved institutions, regularly full of passionate patrons who have a sense of individual ownership of the place. Like most tribal environments dive bars can be moderately unsafe to outsiders, with their own customs that normal bars might not abide. And while assaults, theft, and occasionally worse can happen at dive bars, they rarely happen to members of the community who occupy them. As a bartender, I once admonished a young man that I’d cut off who was on the verge of doing something about it: “If you try to jump over this bar, either I’m going to get you,” then I nodded to the room full of regulars who had all grown quiet, “or they will.”

What marketers, trendsetters, and even many bar owners fail to grasp is that a “dive bar” is more than an aesthetic. It’s not something that can be papered on the walls or adopted by fiat. No amount of corrugated siding, expired license plates, carved initials, or sliced-up posters and stickers will turn a regular bar into a dive bar. A popular magazine can’t simply anoint a trendy new concept a subspecies of dive. In fact, the moment a place is written up as a “great dive bar,” its dive bar credentials suffer until, after a couple of months when tourists invariably grow tired, the regulars return.

There are no great dives, no new dives, no sober dives, no all-ages dives, and certainly no fucking cocktail dives; there are simply dives. Does the beer taste a little warm? It’s probably because the keg cooler has been begging for a new compressor for years, but the owner just needs to get through the next payroll. Your glass has a chip? Drink around it. If you insist on telling the bartender, wait until you order a new round, so they don’t just refill the same pint. But be warned that the next glass might be coming hot out of the dishwasher. You get what you get in a dive bar.

Like the people who inhabit them, dive bars don’t care what you think and only nominally care about what you want. Depending on the day they may be too tired, too old, or simply too hung over for your shit today. This is probably why so many bartenders occupy dive bars during their off hours. For people who clench their teeth every day at work serving clueless twenty somethings, indecisive bachelorette parties, creepy old men expecting a smile, and bros demanding shots then fumbling with their wallets when they hear the price, we sometimes need a break. We find respite existing in places that don’t suffer fools, where decorum is defined by minding your own business. Dive bars are places, perhaps the only places, where we know we can be pensively silent or absolute goblins entirely without judgement. If bartenders have safe spaces, they are dive bars.

Please bear this in mind when your excitable friends say they’re taking you to a great dive to get you out of your shell after a breakup. Because they are not. They’re taking you to a regular bar. With all due respect to your friends, dives aren’t for breaking out of shells, they’re for getting cozy within them.

dive bar bathroom wall

Earlier this year, Miller High Life collaborated with an alcoholic ice cream brand called Tipsy Scoop to release a small run of “High Life Ice Cream Dive Bars.” The 5% ABV ice cream is flavored with actual High Life beer, chocolate, caramel, and a peanut swirl, to evoke that “distinct sticky dive bar floor feeling.” A sprinkle of carbonated candy emulates the spritz of a freshly drawn pint of shitty beer. I normally try to avert my eyes when niche companies and ad execs for beverage monoliths pander for press, but this one got under my skin. “Who wants to lick the carpet where Jerry pissed himself?” I wondered aloud.

It’s unfair to pigeonhole dive bars as purveyors of inferiority. In truth, some dives offer delicious meals at prices so low it’s hard to comprehend. They’re irreplaceable domains of local culture where income, social status, fame, and everything else don’t matter for at least the time you spend within their four walls. They’re great equalizers. The staff of a dive loves the bar like it’s been in their family for generations, and there’s a good chance it has been. The regulars of a dive have been coming to them since they could drink. If they moved away, they never fail to return on a visit.

Popular non-dive bars have a different culture. They’re where you go to be seen, to experience a new trend, or to impress a client or a date. Sometimes they’re just where you go to have a great time and watch the game. Not being a dive bar does not make a place lesser. But dive bars have history and community. They’re where a person can turn when they have nothing and need a place to be. They’re bars where your mother can point to the corner stool where your grandfather always sat. They’re the keepers of the “remember when.”

About ten years ago a journalist for a local publication asked me where I liked to go to drink, and I answered honestly. I told him about the dive that I spent a couple of nights a week at, where I knew I would never see a regular from my bar and rarely even another bartender except for those like me who were chasing the sunrise. I regretted it. It was uncomfortable to see this place, with the felt on its pool tables shredded and its stage for shows little more than a stack of combo amps, spin through a culture rag. Because it already had a culture, and it didn’t need a new one. When its building was finally sold, demolished, and rebuilt into a glass-walled coffee shop, I promised myself that I wouldn’t do that again.

Because dives deserve to exist, to flourish, and sometimes to be torn down to their foundations based on their own merits and existing as much as they can by their own rules. We lessen them, and to some degree ourselves, by asking them to be something different.

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