Ask the Bartender: What Happened to My Free Drink?

There’s a business to run. Don’t take it personally.

There's a restaurant and bar near our condo where we used to get a free round of drinks almost every time we came in, which was quite frequently. About a month ago, the free drinks stopped. It's the same bartender, and we don't get rowdy and always tip well. Did we wear out our welcome?—Sheryl

This question makes me cringe, only because it shows just how easily gestures of goodwill can be misunderstood. Understandably, you came to expect a certain level of treatment; it's natural to wonder what changed. Without knowing the backstory, I'd say your bartender got in trouble for giving away too many drinks, or just overdid it, and had to restrain her philanthropic behavior.When a bartender picks up a round, it's called a buy-back. This buy-back business is a touchy practice; there are no rules, every bar has a different policy, and each bartender takes a different degree of liberty. Think of the entire point of the buy-back as similar to a frequent-flyer program. Bartenders thank good, loyal customers with a free drink every once in a while, and usually have a nightly or weekly allowance for freebies. Don't ever take it personally if you get a free drink one night and not the next—perhaps a ton of regulars have been in that week and she's exhausted her quota.Buy-backs should always be appreciated, never expected. Your grocery store doesn't give you a free gallon of milk every time you come in, right? Multiply your free drinks by those doled out to other regulars, and your favorite local bar is apt to go out of business if they don't rein the practice in a little.Ultimately, I blame certain bartenders' lack of candor and imagination for such misunderstandings. There are so many ways to finesse a situation, and I feel a free drink is often the laziest—as well as the most expensive. Picking up the tab for something a customer was already going to order doesn't feel that special.The pro move would be to include you in a more creative way. A good bartender will give you a healthy sip of the 10-year tawny port she's pouring for another table, noticing it would go well with your dessert. Or maybe she'll let you try the new beer on tap with a local, aged sheep cheese that just hit the menu, or deliver a little bit of bubbly when you say you're celebrating a raise. Erik Hakkinen of Zig Zag, for instance, is ever so adroit about dropping knowledge on his guests, one ounce at a time.None of these things cost as much as two free drinks. Service is about the little touches, all of which will make a much bigger impression on you, good customer, while letting you know we are grateful.Got a question for the bartender? Send your boozy plea to

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