Ask the Bartender: Tipping at the Open Bar

Brian asks, I was at a fundraiser with an open bar, getting money out to tip the bartender when a woman who looked like all she does is attend dinners like these told me not to tip, that "these people already get plenty of money." Is that true?

She wasn't wearing a leopard fur coat, was she? I think I remember her and her Barbara Bush-like sentiments from a big cat rescue fundraiser... (beat) Brian, never listen to rich people when it comes to etiquette. I know this seems counter intuitive, but half of them -especially the newly rich--have no idea how to carry themselves in a formal or dining situation (or don't care)...

I ask you, Brian, did you tip the coat check person for hanging and unhanging your coat? Then why wouldn't you tip the person who spent a heck of a lot more time making your three martinis? I realize the whole situation can feel as if it never ends. For example, do you tip your waiter? By the above logic...yes, but I would say only if you felt you had exceptional service. I am good for a fiver the first round a bartender makes for me; that buys me speedy service at the bar, and usually a much stiffer drink. After that, I tip based on the service I receive. Banquet bartenders run the gamut and can make or break a party, from surly "Next!" sorts who might as well be working for the TSA to genial types who can really make your party something special.

But that doesn't answer your question. As always, instead of feeling anxious or unsure, just ask already! Some venues pay their employees a base salary and then divvy up a percentage of the tips paid on the overall party's bill amongst all involved. Some venues just pay a flat rate, using only on-call workers who use the job as extra money and get zero benefits. Having done a ton of catering, I see the merits of both. Neither way is a path to getting rich. Charity benefits are a special case; often the charity gets a screaming deal by the caterer and tips for employees will be very small.

In the end, you've dressed up and have enough money to go to an at least mildly grand affair. Have the grace to stick a couple of ones and a few five spots in your pocket. What's it to you?

For more open bar etiquette, here's a little something I wrote last summer. If you have a question for the bartender, you can email me at

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