Crowd Control: A History of Bar Etiquette

Drinking in bars often requires a code of conduct to keep inebriation in balance with hospitality. Dan Saltzstein takes a look at bar etiquette and its role throughout the ages, from the days of saloon spittoons to the era of faux-speakeasy house rules.

Drinking in bars is an odd phenomenon. Customers gather at a common space, get served a toxic beverage (or three), perhaps socialize—and hopefully that’s it. Of course, it often isn’t. Drinks are spilled, punches get thrown and, occasionally, worse. Sometimes a bartender makes peace. Sometimes a toast is made.

The history of bar behavior is tied up in a juncture unique to bars and the working life of bartenders: inebriation and hospitality. Those two pieces are essential to etiquette at bars across the spectrum, from a sports bar serving pitchers on game night to a cocktail bar shaking and stirring seven-ingredient drinks.

But that intersection can be a tricky one.

“The purpose of drinking,” says Sasha Petraske, Milk & Honey’s owner and one of the craft cocktail scene’s most important innovators, “is to get as drunk as you can without ruining it for other people.”

That, of course, hasn’t always been a guiding principle. Well over a century ago, during the boom of the saloon era, things were very different. Go-to quaffs were not cocktails, but more likely straight liquor, sometimes of questionable provenance. Women were not welcome. Hats were not taken off. The atmosphere was so crude that there was often no need to head to the outhouse: Trenches, or bar urinals, were fairly commonplace. (You can still find them—non-functioning, alas—at a few bars around the country, including Comstock Saloon in San Francisco and Cherry Street Tavern in Philadelphia.)

“You could pretty much do whatever you wanted,” says James Jarvis, a San Francisco-based saloon historian. “Gamble, chew tobacco—almost every bar had spittoons. Places had gun-carrying laws, but pretty much everyone carried.”

As Dale DeGroff, the bartender and educator largely responsible for the current cocktail revival, puts it, “saloons were where civilization broke down into a predatory environment.”

There were, however, codes of conduct: “If a man bought you a drink, you were obliged to buy him a drink,” Jarvis notes. And there were outliers on the other side of the bar, too. In the later part of the 19th century, Jerry Thomas became famous for inventing and codifying drinks that would later fuel the cocktail revival. At his bars, the atmosphere matched his personality. “His was the first real style of service,” DeGroff says. “He was a player.” Elsewhere, at even higher-end gilded spots for Robber Baron types, things were sophisticated and subdued—you spoke only if you were spoken to.

The ’70s and ’80s ushered in the era of the singles bar and disco, where the emphasis was decidedly less on drinks and more on hookups and nose-numbing trips to the bathroom. In a sense, etiquette was lost for a time: Customers wore what they wanted (often: not much) and behaved with abandon—an updated version of the Wild West of the saloon days, with cocaine instead of chaw.

But, for the most part, the saloon reigned into the 20th century. That began to change when drinking went underground in 1920. The forces behind Prohibition may have intended to stop public drinking, but the actual effect was more complicated. For one thing, women, for the first time, joined the party. That meant the advent of bar stools (lest ladies be forced to stand), jazz-infused dancing and cocktails tailored to draw in female imbibers (the pink-hued Mary Pickford, for example).

“Women in the 1910s had drunk quietly,” Catherine Gilbert Murdock writes in her book Domesticating Drink. “By the late 1920s, they were doing so flagrantly.” In short skirts and bobbed hair (and perhaps armed with a garter flask), women drinkers flouted social mores—and took the accompanying risks.

Prohibition was repealed in 1933, but had changed things forever. The focus was now less on “a masculine subculture based on exclusivity, inebriety and violence,” to quote Murdock, and more centered on making customers feel welcome and cared for.

“All of these places were communities,” says DeGroff of the sort of neighborhood bars that were popular in the post-Prohibition era; the Great Depression had put countless men out of work—and, for a time, sent many women back home. People gathered at bars to pass the time, lament their joblessness. And though cocktails began to go out of style, bartenders could still be counted on to take care of their clientele.

Over the following decades, the domestic cocktail party began to replace the saloon as the communal drinking experience. At the bars that did survive, drinks came into and went out of vogue—and etiquette norms followed suit. When tiki had its moment, things took a turn for the goofy; a bartender in a Hawaiian shirt taking orders over a singing parrot isn’t likely to inspire reverence.

The ’70s and ’80s ushered in the era of the singles bar and disco, where the emphasis was decidedly less on drinks and more on hookups and nose-numbing trips to the bathroom. In a sense, etiquette was lost for a time: Customers wore what they wanted (often: not much) and behaved with abandon—an updated version of the Wild West of the saloon days, with cocaine instead of chaw.

Serious bartenders tried to weather these changes, and responded as they saw fit. “In the ’90s, I didn’t say I’m going to stop making Cosmos,” Petraske says. “I stopped carrying cranberry juice.”

When he opened Milk & Honey in 2000, Petraske established a new set of expectations with its house rules, inspired by those at East Village speakeasy, Angel’s Share (which were created to keep the small bar comfortable). Some were common sense (“Do not linger outside the front door.”); others seemed to harken back to an earlier era (“Gentlemen will remove their hats. Hooks are provided.”). But all were intended to set a tone that would be a sort of filter—a self-selection process in which people who were okay with those rules were the ones likely to return.

“It’s a way of not being exclusive, because you have rules that apply to everyone,” Petraske says. “Everyone is welcome once, not everyone is welcome back.” It was, in a way, a return to the speakeasy era, when rules existed out of necessity.

To bartenders like Toby Maloney, who worked at Milk & Honey for five years and now runs The Violet Hour in Chicago (house rule: “No O-Bombs. No Jager-Bombs. No bombs of any kind.”), the necessity was simply of a different sort: instead of keeping things secret, the idea was to take bar culture back from the louts.

“Seeing that was revolutionary,” he says of the Milk & Honey philosophy. “That you treated a bar with respect and concentrated on what you were drinking.” Early on, Maloney says, there were challenges: “It was a steep learning curve. A lot of people got kicked out, and a lot of people hated it.”

That has changed over the last decade or so, in part because of the proliferation of house rules, even if they are often more of a novelty than a philosophy. The Vortex in Atlanta, for example, provides a full-page “Amateur’s Guide to Bar Etiquette”; the Downtown Cocktail Room in Las Vegas offers nine “Decorum” points. (House rule: “Talk of religion and politics is strongly discouraged unless you are a priest, rabbi or politician.”)

And, of course, there is price point: If you are paying $15 for a (well-made) drink, you are more likely to take the experience seriously. “Now that people understand what a good cocktail bar is, we can loosen the reins a little bit,” says Maloney.

So where is bar etiquette headed? It depends on the bar, of course. Game night at your typical sports bar is going to get rowdy. Craft cocktail dens aim to maintain the level of decorum. And a new genre of hybrid has emerged. Honeycut, in downtown Los Angeles, offers both a serious cocktail lounge and a disco room, complete with a pulsing “Saturday Night Fever”-style floor. Nitecap, on New York’s Lower East Side, serves a dizzying array of ambitious drinks, but at its busiest features the volume level of Studio 54 in its heyday.

Above all, though, is the bartender, setting the tone as they have since the saloon days.

Audrey Saunders, who worked under DeGroff for years in New York and now owns Pegu Club, puts it bluntly: “If the bartender is an asshole, it doesn’t matter how good the drinks are.” In the end, she says, it’s about hospitality and personal interaction. “It’s like a date. Every bartender is dating the customer.”