Get Back Out There

How To Drink Inside A Bar Again, According to Experts

Things to know before drinking indoors again.

going to a bar indoors during the pandemic
Photo courtesy of Serenata, design by Grace Han for Thrillist
This story is a part of a Thrillist series helping our readers navigate and slowly return to the world. Be sure to always follow CDC guidelines and, most importantly, don't leave the house if you're experiencing fever, cough, shortness of breath, or other symptoms of COVID-19.

Sure, we made do. We poured wine for Zoom happy hours, attended virtual cocktail classes to drum up our skills, and may or may not have spent whole paychecks keeping our home bar stocked this past year. But damn if we didn’t miss the feeling of sidling up to a well-worn bar, getting a coaster thrown down in front of us, and hearing the question: “What’ll it be?” 

Now that millions of Americans have gotten vaccinated and COVID protocols are loosening, we’re all tempted to get back out there. But how do we do it safely both for ourselves and for bartenders? Also, how do we make the most of the experience while respecting time limits, reservation requirements, and social distancing? In short, can we still have fun at a bar while staying safe?

“Sometimes it’s better to get back in the swing of things and get off your couch, in a safe way,” says Andra “AJ” Johnson, beverage director at Latin cocktail bar Serenata in Washington DC. “It’s been a trying year for mental health, and being around people again has been a blessing.”

On the one hand, coming back together again can feel as natural as riding a bike, but it’s important to realize that your favorite bar has changed a lot in the last 15 months.

“There’s still a great deal of anxiety and so much uncertainty still about what will happen in the next year with booster shots and variants,” says Nick Detrich, partner at New Orleans-based bar Manolito and founder of Jewel of the South. “But, for now, the plywood is off the buildings and people are walking around with go-drinks. The city almost feels like it’s pre-pandemic self again.”

We asked Johnson and Detrich for their best advice when it comes to drinking indoors right now—everything from reservations and tipping to questions to ask and drinks to order. So raise those glasses (if your arm isn’t still sore from the vaccine) and toast to your favorite bar once again.

Do your research before you go

Odds are, policies have changed since you last walked through the door of your favorite bar. So check the bar’s website or social media to make sure you’re aware of new hours, service models, reservations requirements, party sizes, and time limits.  

“A lot of it is about controlling the flow in the room,” Detrich explains. “If it’s a place you’re accustomed to walking right up to the bar, it’s probably not the same anymore.” 

Johnson adds to look for signage that might include a contact tracing form, explain the ordering process, or display a QR code for a cocktail menu. Plus, get a clear understanding of the vibe and mission of the place because downsized inventories and staff are making experiences more niche than ever. 

“Be more intentional when you go out now,” Johnson says. “If you want upscale Latin cocktails, come to us. But if you want a shot-and-a-beer night, we can’t really provide that for you right now. I only have 12 seats total at the moment, so everyone here needs to appreciate this experience.”

Wear your mask unless eating or drinking

Mask-wearing is especially important if you’re hanging out indoors and it makes conversations between workers and guests way more comfortable. 

“It’s always so greatly appreciated if people adhere to mask-wearing when they’re not eating or drinking that very second,” Johnson says. “Once you pop your mask on, we’re much more comfortable to chat with you, interact, and answer any questions.”

Ask questions and engage with your bartender

We aren’t the only ones who have been cooped up and missing the bar. For many bartenders, there has been a huge void when it comes to expressing themselves and furthering their career, so pop your mask on and ask them questions. 

“Ask your bartenders to guide your experience, now more than ever,” Johnson says. “They're the ones batching, prepping, and creating all the flavor profiles. They see it from start to finish. There are a lot of folks getting back behind the bar and they just are bursting to get out their creativity.”

In addition, Detrich says it’s great to be honest about your comfortability level with your bartender so you can all feel like you’re on the same page. This is a strange experience, to be  jumping back into the “normal” of it all, so being candid is encouraged. 

“One thing I’ve noticed is that people are kind of announcing it, like this is the first time they’ve been back in a bar,” he says. “I think that’s a great thing for me serving guests. It lets me know I need to be more welcoming, courteous, and careful. Plus, it’s just a great way to connect.”

Order drinks directly from the menu

Gone (for now) are the days of just seeing what a bartender can whip up that might fit your mood. Bartenders say it’s important to be conscious of the fact that they are only keeping what they really need in stock, not to mention are relying on smaller staffs.

“We used to have people come in and ask for a vodka-cran or things that weren’t part of our concept and we could make adjustments,” Johnson says. “Now with costs up, we probably don’t have a random bottle of cranberry juice in the back of the fridge.”

To that end, cocktail menus themselves are probably more exciting than ever—considering owners and makers have had an entire year to drum up new ideas. So read over the menu and you’ll end up getting a better drink in the end. 

“It’s important to have that dialogue instead of just barking your order,” Detrich says. “Some of these bartenders have taken a long break and it might take a while to remember how to make a Brooklyn or another off-menu drink. There are going to be cool innovations that come out of this break, so ordering a drink from the menu will be your best bet.”

Go cashless if you can and tip more than you think

Most bars are trying to be as contactless as possible. Bartenders say things like Apple Pay and tab apps have made things more seamless, especially when they have to turn seats over quickly. 

Johnson says you can always ask for a manager if cash is all you have, or try to work it out with a friend that has a credit card. But, no matter how you pay, she and Detrich both agree that tipping generously is a non-negotiable. “20 percent—at the very least,” Johnson says.

“20 percent is the new 15,” Detrich says. “Just overall, be aware of the real estate you’re taking and make it worthwhile for the establishment. We’ve all got COVID fog and just being gentle and gracious—on both sides of the bar—goes a long way.”

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Jess Mayhugh is the editorial director of food & drink for Thrillist and is excited to, once again, have a dirty martini inside a bar. Follow her on Instagram.
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