unwritten bar rules you're probably breaking
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Food & Drink

The 17 Unwritten Bar Rules You're Probably Breaking

Whether a dingy old dive or a high-end cocktailery, bars are where certified adults go to let loose and, quite often, behave like grown children. But even the most disreputable den of sin has rules, and only some of them are written. (That "aim to please" sign above the urinal is basically one of the Ten Commandments.) Like the unwritten rules at restaurants, you shouldn't need to see them framed on a wall to know not to break them. Consider the 17 rules below to be a code of conduct for any bar.

Never reach over the bar
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Never reach over the bar

The bar isn’t just a surface on which you place your drinks while Piper Perabo dances. It should be considered a sacred, unbreachable barrier beyond which you should never reach: not for extra maraschino cherries, not to access a plug to charge your phone, and certainly not to pour your own beer. Anyone violating this rule shall be sentenced to waiting endlessly for Coyote Ugly 2 to get made.

Tip your bartenders, even if they're just cracking open a beer

It doesn't matter if your barkeep is mixing together four atomic mojitos with a cran-raspberry infusion topped with a thin layer of artisan smoke made from burning original 1869 first-run editions of Little Women or simply cracking open a simple tallboy: they are still working. And you need to tip them -- if not on every drink, than at least on every other. No questions. No excuses. No wiggle room.

Know the bar you're in, and order accordingly 

Much like you wouldn’t walk into a fancy Italian restaurant and order a burger simply because there's beef and bread in the kitchen, you should never head into a dive bar and order an overcomplicated cocktail that requires you to tell the bartender what’s in it. Nor should you enter a sports bar expecting to see a massive wine list that extends beyond “red,” “white,” and Boone’s. Or sidle up at an upscale cocktail bar looking for a well rum and Coke. And if you have to spend more than 10 seconds wondering if you should order a certain kind of drink at the establishment you've chosen, chances are you shouldn't. In that case, stick to beer.

Waving money
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Hold your money, don't wave your money

Snapping, waving maniacally, yelling... there are myriad ways to flag a bartender down, most of which are incredibly obnoxious. Save those snapping fingers for your a capella Billy Joel cover band: If you need a drink, pull out your money or card, lay it down, and wait to make eye contact. If you already have a tab open, eye contact plus a polite wave will do. But never, ever, treat the bar like you’re training to become an air-traffic controller.

Don't hog the games 

Pool and foosball tables, shuffleboards, and arcade games are precious commodities. Play as long as you like, but if you see a group eyeballing the games, be courteous and cede the table sooner than later. And if you’re throwing darts and suddenly find yourself surrounded by a bunch of British people wearing wrist guards, it’s good business to wrap up well before you spend 45 minutes trying to hit that last bull's-eye.

Have your FULL order ready at a crowded bar 

Bartenders are busy people. Bargoers are thirsty people. When things are busy, it’s essential to know exactly what you want right when the bartender gets to you, lest you keep that busy person from all those thirsty people. Take your wait time to look at the tap list or cocktail menu. When it's time to order, don't start questioning the bartender about the individual ingredients that go into a cocktail that are clearly spelled out right on the menu. And if you’re ordering multiple drinks, order them all in one fell swoop... there’s nothing worse than a patron monopolizing a bartender’s time because they’re waiting for each individual drink to be constructed before they get the next, which is probably a mojito or some other time-consuming thing. 

Don't leave the bathroom messier than you found it 

Seems a pretty simple ask, though anyone who has stepped into a busy bar’s bathroom can attest that it’s apparently extremely difficult, so it bears repeating: Fluids go in the toilet. Paper towels -- and nothing else -- go in the wastebasket. Get in, do your business, and get out. No extracurricular activities. No heavy petting. And for the love of god, no improvising. 

The gerbil person
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Don't be a gerbil

A "gerbil" is an adorably accurate industry term for a customer that shreds labels, napkins, coasters, menus, and all other tearable refuse available at their table. While it might just be a quirky offshoot of restlessness, ADHD, and overall social anxiety, it creates an extremely obnoxious clean-up situation for any and all employees. You are taking the worst part of their job and ripping it into a thousand shards of frustration. And please -- whatever you do -- DO NOT PUT YOUR OLD NAPKINS INSIDE GLASSES. Someone has to fish those out, you know.

Don't relentlessly hit on the bartender

Look, you are very good looking, of course. But they are probably not that into you. And even if they are, assume they aren't. They probably aren't. If they are, they'll hit on you. That probably isn't happening. Sorry.

If your bill is wrong, say something 

There are two possible scenarios that result in a drink not showing up on your bill. The first is that the bartender comped you a drink and didn’t tell you, in which case you should ask them about it, smile broadly, and tip them very generously. The second is that they accidentally forgot to charge you, and while it’s their (easy to make) mistake, if you notice and walk away, you’re straight-up stealing. Do the right thing. Karma will reward you. The bartender will too... probably by comping it anyway, leaving you with a clear conscience and the desire to tip on that drink. 

Spilled drinks at a bar
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If you break a glass, tell someone

Breaking a glass is embarrassing. But being responsible for someone impaling their feet/hands/face/buttocks on broken glass is much more embarrassing. And twice as likely to result in a hefty lawsuit. And blood.

If you spill, tell someone

Again, no one wants to admit to being a Sloppy Steve/Susan. But someone is going to have to clean it up eventually, and guess what: the employees don't give a shit. They just don't want people to fall down.

Stay clear of the service area

You know that spot in the bar where all the servers, bar backs, and all other employees keep bumping into you with bus buckets and drink trays? The one where you get all the dirty looks? With all the POS computers and bar access? Yeah, don't stand there. You might think you are doing the bartender a favor by keeping lines down, or "going to them," but you're just getting in the way. One misplaced customer can create a logjam that delays drinks for a seeming eternity. If you are nudged by an employee more than once, you are in a problem-zone.

Phone in the bar
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Nobody should ever hear your phone

You should treat your phone like wealthy parents treated their children in the 19th century: They should be seen, not heard. Actually, you know what? They shouldn't be seen either. You are at a bar. Talk to people. Put the phone down! Well, unless you need to check your email, Instagram, Bumble, fantasy football, Slack, stocks, horoscope, texts, or Twitter... obviously. Man, smart phones are incredible, right? Just keep it on silent. And no taking phone calls. Step outside. Even if it's your mom. All that bar noise will worry her anyway.  

When playing the jukebox, play to the crowd

Music, like candy corn, is inherently subjective. No one is going to have the same opinion. Of course, when you put down money to play a song on the jukebox, you want to play something you like -- it is your money, after all. But you probably shouldn't play "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows" at a biker bar. Nor should you put on 41 minutes of DOOM at a bougie cocktail joint with Edison bulbs and bartenders wearing non-functional suspenders. Read the room. Play to the crowd. And when in doubt, play some early '70s Stones.

Don't complain to the bartender about drink prices

No, a mimosa should not cost $25, even with a lovely coastal view or complimentary cashews. However, you should know that it's never the bartenders who set the prices. Yelling at them is like screaming at a bull because the rodeo you're at sucks. They would probably change it if they could, but they can't. Instead, either write a strongly worded letter to the owner or shut up and enjoy your overpriced drink and the view.

Don't crowd strangers at an empty bar

Barstools populated by strangers should be treated like urinals. Actually, wait, no, don’t treat them like urinals. Sorry. Let’s start over. When approaching a row of barstools, one should exercise the same etiquette one exercises when approaching a row of urinals: If there are open seats, don’t sit right next to somebody. If there are no other open seats, by all means sit next to them. If that happens, avoid awkward small talk and making prolonged eye contact with the stranger’s genitals.

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Andy Kryza will keep making Piper Perabo references until she finally reads his script for Coyote Ugly 2: Ultra Violet. Follow him to Robert McKee's ire @apkryza. 

Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Thrillist. He tries not to pee at bars. Follow him @wilfulton.