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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Snappy 20-Something Neighborhood Girl Bartender

What’s happened to the classic, neighborhood corner bar? Not so very long ago you could walk into any corner bar and find an older male bartender tending the space with the dignity of an old priest. Usually there’d be a lot of conversation in these bars: Customers talking to other customers or “consulting” with the bartender on any number of issues. The old style ‘priest’ bartender was everything: friend, mentor, father, therapist, but always a good listener. The ‘priest’ bartender was always a dispenser of sound advice. Once more, he never tried to steal the show. By that I mean he had a knack for making himself invisible until you needed him. He did not, unlike his replacement—the snappy twenty-something bartender girl in a ponytail—reduce his customer base to a hypnotic fan club that salivates over his every move.

Ah, yes, the snappy, twenty something female bartender! She’s quick, she’s saucy, she may even perform bottle tricks, but as for advice, counseling or commentary about world events, forget it, she’s too young and inexperienced to delve into these matters. Anyone, even a monkey, can be trained to mix drinks, but only someone with a lot of life experience can be a bartender with excellent people skills.

This is not to put down female bartenders. To the contrary, I think older women bartenders, when they have that motherly thing going for them, can be superb. Older women are not so lost in body self consciousness as their younger sisters, and they are not so set on prancing about being “sexy.” More importantly, they have more of ability to converse or act as barstool therapists. They have enough life experience to relate to customers on many different levels.

When I first moved to the neighborhood in 2002, one of the first things I did was familiarize myself with the local bars. At that time I found a number of bartender “priests” in little corner bars that had not yet been gentrified into beer palaces with wide plasma TV screens. The bars had old pool tables, as well as racks of cheap bar snacks—chips anyone?—lining the walls. Some bars even had complimentary bowls of nuts or popcorn, and the music was low enough so that you could actually have a conversation. Today, most of these same corner bars have gone the way of Delilah’s Den. The old ‘priest’ has been replaced by a snappy girl with a ponytail who would no more have a conversation about world events than she’d read to you pages from her diary. Gone are the small bags of chips; and forget the complimentary bowls of nuts or popcorn. If you want something to eat, you have to order something “important” from the kitchen. Nine times out ten, customers in these new bars are not talking to one another but seem lost in a hypnotic trance that has more to do with greased pole imaginings than anything else.

Sadly, the unassuming little neighborhood bar, once a great place for conversation, has been transformed into a cheesecake palace.

This is a change that’s been happening nationwide, not just in the neighborhood. It’s also a change that’s being noticed by unemployed male bartenders who suddenly cannot find work.
Recently, I stumbled onto an Internet out of work bartender message board and noted some of the comments.

“The female bartender is perhaps the most jaded, cold, walled off and unapproachable member of the female species,” says Maggie Savarino Dutton, herself a bartender, in the Seattle Weekly.

Dutton is referring to the fact that if male customers think they’re going to get a date from female-bartender, they’re mistaken. A young attractive female is not going to play therapist or devote too much time to any male customer because there could be “consequences.” She’s always “threatened” with sexual harassment. It’s precisely because she works in a bar that she knows all the male pickup lines.

What to do? “Bring back the neighborhood hangouts and send the metrosexuals and Girl Gone Wild back to the clubs and strip joints,” one male bartender wrote. “All trends fade away. Right now the trend is dumb, fake and plastic,” another man offered.

The economy and new tobacco laws are blamed for the decline in the neighborhood bar business, hence bar owners have latched onto young female bartenders as a possible solution. Female youth now trumps experience, knowledge and people skill—as a way to make money.
One solution is to find a neighborhood bar that hasn’t gone plastic, that’s still gritty in some respects. Better yet, why don’t these bars team the females up with male bartenders? The females can take of business while the male bartenders—all over 30, of course—could converse with the customers and do the counselor/therapist thing.

This, as one bartender wrote, would attract both a wide female and male customer base.

Thom Nickels can be rached at

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