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What Happened to the Bar Tab?

Why “Put it on my tab,” once a bond between bar and loyal customer, has gone extinct.

death of the bar tab

The cocktail revival of the last 25 years has succeeded in bringing many old bar traditions back from the dead. Muddling, arm garters, fresh juice, Blue Blazers, tiki culture—the list goes on and on. One thing it hasn’t rescued, however, is the bar tab.

We’re not talking bar tabs as in “Would you like to start a tab?,” a question asked a million times every night in bars across the world. Rather, it’s the old form of barroom credit, the weekly and monthly tab—an instrument by which regulars could drink free until the next paycheck, whereupon the bill would be settled.

“Put it on my tab” was once a common remark heard from barflies exiting taverns from Saratoga to Seattle. You can see fictive evidence of the phenomenon on most any episode of the 1980s sitcom Cheers, where habitué Norm Peterson rarely paid for his many beers, and his voluminous tab was a regular source of humor.

For Norm and his temporary benefactor, Sam Malone, the tab represented more than just an onerous IOU. That’s because tabs were never just a business arrangement between a saloon and the strapped-for-cash. They represented a tie between bar owner and bar customer—a bond of trust. Along with other bygone bar services, such as cashing customers’ checks and accepting their mail, tabs were one of the ways that saloons asserted themselves as community centers.

“In downtown Boston in the 1970s, there were a few who did it,” said Brother Cleve, the Boston-based cocktail mentor. Cleve had tabs at a couple bars back then. “I’d pay at the end of the week. I’d bring in my paycheck, they would cash it and I’d pay my tab out of paycheck.”

Finding a bar that uses tabs today, however, is as hard as finding one with a free lunch.

“NO WAY!” was bar owner Julie Reiner’s succinct reply when asked if she used tabs at her bars Flatiron Lounge, Clover Club or Leyenda. Answers from other prominent bar owners across the United States were similarly swift and decisive. Some were even contemptuous of the very idea.

Neither Reiner nor any other bar owners I asked, seemed to think anything valuable had been lost with the death of the bar tab. To their minds, it had been ably replaced by a system more reliable and immediate.

“Want to reconcile your tab once a month?” said Derek Brown, owner of The Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. “Get an AmEx.”

Brown’s reference to a credit card is very much to the point. Most bar owners agree that the bar tab was the victim of our all-encompassing, modern credit universe. Once upon a time, people were paid once a week or every two weeks, credit cards were relative luxuries, there were no ATMs and bank hours were shorter and sometimes nonexistent on the weekends. If you were thirsty, had no money in your pocket and the bank was closed, you were out of luck unless the bar chose to extend you a line of credit.

“Weekly and monthly bar tabs have gone the way of neighborhood grocery or pharmacy ‘accounts,’” said Neal Bodenheimer, an owner of the New Orleans bars Cure and Cane & Table. “The rise of credit and bank cards has taken bars and restaurants out of the business of issuing credit and having to track down accounts receivable.”

Moreover, establishing a tab doesn’t seem to be an issue for customers, either. The bar owners interviewed for this article couldn’t remember a single patron asking them to set one up. “I think personal consumer credit has changed so much that there is no expectation from guests,” said Bodenheimer. “We’ve had guests ask us to hold a tab for a day if they forget their wallet, but the erosion of cash culture has really changed the whole business.” In a world besotted with convenience, where people regularly pay for four-dollar coffees with plastic, cash-carriers are unicorns. Almost everyone who enters a bar today is armed with a credit or debit card. Moreover, some states, such as Illinois and Iowa, make it legally impossible to establish a tab. “Even if you come in here and order some drinks and we know you, and you intend to pay in cash, legally you have to present a card,” said Mike Miller, owner of the renowned Chicago whiskey bar, Delilah’s.

All the practical arguments for the death of the bar tab make unimpeachable sense. But unspoken today is the fuller essence of the practice. For all the talk these days among contemporary bar owners and bartenders about hospitality and the importance of the customer relationship, bars are more transactional places now. The fault for this lies as much with the patron, who is today a much more fickle beast than 50 years ago. They flit from joint to joint, following trends and Instagram posts. When you don’t linger in one place long enough to become a fixture, there’s no reason for a tab.

“There’s so many options and there are so many new places,” Cleve said. “Used to be you’d have your regular bartender who’d make your regular drink and they’d be making it before you sat down.”

David Kaplan, an owner of Death & Co., understands first-hand the intrinsic appeal of the service from a customer point of view. He lives in Wyoming much of the time, and holds tabs to two spots in Jackson Hole.

“I always think it’s a great feeling to just sign off on them and walk out,” he said. “Makes me feel like part of their family.”

He does not plan to institute a tab policy at Death & Co., but he’s tried to find other ways to forge special relationships with customers. “For a place where getting a table and skipping the line are forms of currency, we extend that to regulars to make them feel like a part of the family,” he said. The bar will also send cards from the staff on patron’s birthdays and anniversaries, and sometimes he draws from within the bar’s regulars for trade services—say, photography. Oftentimes, the people he hires will work at a discounted fee.

What do they want in exchange? A bar tab.

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