You spend more time with your bartender than you do with your family; you should have a better relationship with him/her than the one you have with the people who drove you to hang out in bars all the time. To help, we asked a bunch of 'tenders for advice on how to become exceptional at being a regular.
Order simple when things get hectic
Even if the bartender designed the cocktail menu, he’ll be grateful if you ask for a beer or whiskey instead of an 8-ingredient masterpiece.
Handle your people when they get out of hand
If someone you brought in starts instigating fights, grabbing asses, etc, get them to stop, or get them to leave. Don’t wait for the bartender or bouncer to step in. Their first move’s gonna be to ask you to handle it, because you’re in a better position to calm your boy with words instead of judo.
Offer your bartender the right shot, for the right reasons
The right attitude’s “I know you’re working, but it’d be awesome if you joined us”, not “Screw your job, hop on our party train!”. Also, offer them their preferred shot, not yours; and remember that a shot is never a substitute for a tip.
Perfect the Casual Half-Raise
It’s not universally accepted yet, but there might be a way to get a bartender’s attention without being a jerk. This open-palm, one-raised-finger, half-mast gesture says in the most undemanding way possible, “I’m here when you’re ready”. It’s so good!
Err towards cash, but don't sweat credit
Cash is king because you take tips home that night instead of 1-2 weeks later, and they’re (shh…) not taxed. BUT: Bartenders get that this is a plastic world; you’re not losing cred by using credit, but tip a bit more anyway, because credit cards aren’t real money.
Keep your bartender company on slow nights
Do talk about: sports, music, movies, drinking, embarrassing sex stories, “ancient aliens”.
Don't talk about: politics, religion, how much money bartenders make, sex stories where you’re really good at sex.
Don't freak your bartender out on slow nights
If you're a creepy stalker, just be low-maintenance about it. Bartenders of both sexes know they’ll have admirers. If they think “I can live with this creep” instead of “I’m calling the cops on this creep”, you’re winning (relatively).
Be respectful even when you feel you’ve been horribly wronged
Bad-tasting beer is rarely the bartender's fault, and regardless he'll comp you a replacement -- happily so if you're cool. If you got the wrong cocktail, you might have ordered wrong, especially if you ordered for a group. If you got the right cocktail but think it was made wrong, remember that bartenders dip a straw for a taste before serving. If the drink’s truly off, they’ll catch it.
Bus your table, mind your chair
If you ordered at the bar, bring your empties back. If there’s table service but the barback’s overwhelmed (sure sign: the bartenders are frantically washing glasses), lending a hand is a “veteran move”. Pushing in your chair to keep service lanes clear is a subtle assist, but the guy not tripping over your chair will notice.
Streamline every interaction so the bartender never has to ask additional questions:
Always say “Can I start a tab?” or “Can I close this out?” when handing over a card.
Lay out specific ingredients, in the order the drink’s constructed: “Grey Goose & cranberry with extra limes” vs “Cranberry & vodka… can I get more limes?”.
With multiple drinks, flag down the bartender only when your entire order’s ready.
Tell him how much change you want; it saves a step, and now he knows it was you who tipped $3 on a $7 drink, and not the Tip Fairy.
Tip like a boss, or at least senior management
$2 per drink is solid; $3 is more than solid. 30% on an end-of-evening bill gets you remembered that night; 50% gets you remembered every night. For buybacks, 50% of whatever the drink would've cost works, though even at 100% you're still saving cash.
For a “This is for you, please take care of me” bonus, 50-100% of that crucial first round's total works, followed up by $2-$3 per round to keep the goodwill flowing. But if things get hectic, don’t remind the bartender of your generosity -- it’s a fine line between rewarding you and shafting everybody else.
Compensate for others' weaknesses
If your friend tips cheaply/not at all, quietly leave make-up cash on the bar because it's the right thing to do. Playing the superhero flying in to save the day makes it look like you’re selling out your pal in return for praise.
Make "a shot and a beer" your regular order
"Makes me smile, every time." -- every bartender in the world
Let the bartender determine when you’ve earned “regular” status...
You can’t force things by introducing him to your friends on your second visit or commiserating about how terrible the other customers are. If you do, like, half of the above stuff, seven visits (not including weekends!) ought to do it.
... and to keep that status, be discreet
If you have an “awesome guy” discount, don’t put 10 friends on your tab. If you get to order after last call, this quote pretty much sums it up: “Last call is like corralling a bunch of toddlers at nap time. Everybody is hurting each others’ feelings, hitting each other, wetting themselves, etc. The last thing that needs to happen is for them to see the one kid still playing with the toy that they all want.”
Special thanks to: George & Justin Ruotolo, Jason Littrell, Billy Potvin, Mark Finnerty, Nell Love, Jacob Gilmore, and Mike Higgins