Last week I visited the beautiful city of Charleston, South Carolina, and I must say if you haven't yet visited this picturesque and historic city, you should put it on your list of places to go. Located close to the Atlantic Ocean on a peninsula facing the Charleston Bay, it boasts magnificent homes, many of which pre-date the American Revolution. For Civil War buffs, it has Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the war were fired. For those who love food and wine, the city has many fine restaurants to choose from, and many of its kitchens are manned by James Beard Award winners. Its hospitality is unmatched and the pride in its city shines through in many details.
While visiting "The Holy City," something occurred that inspired this piece. I was at one of the best hotels in the city having a cocktail at the bar when the bartender made "last call." That was fine, but once she made the drinks for various customers, myself included, the lights came up quickly and the bar atmosphere suddenly became unwelcome. She could not have been nicer up to that point, but it would have been more appropriate for her to have allowed a proper amount of time for us to enjoy our cocktails. It felt like we all were being given the "bum's rush."
The next night, at a different hotel, the same thing happened. Now this is not to pick on Charleston because I know this happens everywhere. The closing dance that occurs nightly in our bars, restaurants and clubs across the U.S. is fraught with misunderstandings and potential confrontation between staff and customers. I think it is a problem that needs to be addressed. Simple guidelines can be set so that the customer has a clear idea of just how long they have to finish his or her drink.
The problem with closing down a bar is that the bartender has ambitions, whether to go home or to go out somewhere and imbibe, but certainly not to stay any longer at the bar than they have to. They have worked a long shift and are tired. The customer, however has a different agenda, namely to enjoy a drink or a nightcap and perhaps more than one. So, when we have a bartender who wants to go home and customers who want to stay, we have two desires that unfortunately are polar opposites. Bartenders become resentful of those who don't heed the "last call" rule and ask for more after the call has been made, which is a no-no, or those who nurse their drinks without taking into account the burden they are placing on the staff who must wait for them to finish their drinks. Customers can become resentful of bartenders who serve a drink that should come with the tacit understanding that it can be enjoyed in the same atmosphere the customer at seven or eight o'clock enjoyed. To serve a drink and then to crank up the lights or turn off the music, or run the vacuum cleaner is an insult to a customer, and the practice should stop.
I have some simple solutions to the problem that I would like to share with my readers:
First, let's talk about the "house" and its policies. Establishments, within reason, should have a closing time that is well-defined for the bar staff. Closing times should be consistent, which can help to attract some late business if in fact the locals know that you will be open until your stated closing time, and therefore they won't hesitate to come because they know you will be open whether there is one patron or twenty at the bar. A consistent closing time can also dissuade a bartender from arbitrarily calling last call before the agreed upon time to do so.
The bartender should know when to give last call, and then when to clear the drinks off the bar. If possible, the patrons should be told before they order their final drinks, just how long they have to finish them. Let's say hypothetically that the bar closes at 2:00. The last call should either come at 1:30 or 1:45. Then, the customers have time to enjoy their libation, without the stress of not knowing how long they have until they must leave. If a bar serves a drink and then changes the atmosphere to shoo away the customers, I believe it is a breach of ethics when a façade is created that the establishment is still open and then the ambiance is changed. Whether intentional or not, serving a drink and then rushing the customer is frankly gouging, and it is a very bad policy to have no matter what type of drinking establishment one runs.
From the customer's side, we have a responsibility, and that is to conduct ourselves like ladies and gentlemen. When last call has been given we should know whether we want another drink or not. We cannot order more drinks after that, because that is not respecting the house rules. Last call is last call, period. If one wants another drink, find an establishment that has later hours, or go home and have your nightcap there -- which in many cases is the best thing to do anyway, especially for those who are driving. The point here is to never argue with the bartender over why you should be allowed to have another if you have been given last call. Let the poor bartender, and whoever else is waiting for you to finish your drink, go home for god's sake!
Let's all consider this: ending the evening graciously is a fine dance, and many establishments need to work on their closing routine. So too should customers respect the establishment's closing time. Starting tonight wouldn't be a bad idea. After all, isn't the bar or restaurant an extension of our homes?
I'll see you when I see you!