It’s that time of week when we answer the questions you’re too

It’s that time of week when we answer the questions you’re too drunk or shy to ask…This one comes from Sheryl:There’s a restaurant and bar near our condo where we used to get a free round of drinks almost every time we came in, which was quite frequently. Sometimes we eat dinner at the bar, sometimes just grab a few drinks. About a month ago, the free drinks stopped. It’s the same bartender, and we don’t get rowdy and always tip well. Did we wear out our welcome? What could have happened?This question makes me cringe, only because it shows just how easily certain gestures can be misunderstood, when the whole point is to make a customer feel special. Understandably, you came to expect a certain level of treatment, whether you realized it or not. It’s natural to wonder what changed.Without knowing the back story, I’d say what changed is that your bartender got in trouble for giving away too many drinks, or just overdid it, and had to restrain her philanthropic behavior. When a bartender picks up a round, it’s called a buy-back. This buy-back business is a touchy practice; there are no rules, every bar has a different policy, and each bartender takes a different degree of liberty. Think of the entire point of the buy-back as similar to a frequent flier program. Bartenders thank good, loyal customers with a free drink every once and a while, and usually have a nightly or weekly allowance for freebies. Don’t ever take it personally if you get a free drink one night and not the next–perhaps a ton of regulars have been in that week and she’s tapped her quota.Seeing as how a bartender is stuck roaming what amounts to a well-stocked cage, she prefers to surround herself with nice people–but she never wants to give so many drinks away that someone comes to expect a free round. Hence, buy-backs should always be appreciated, never expected. Your grocery store doesn’t give you a free gallon of milk every time you come in, right? Multiply your free drinks by those doled out to other regulars, and your favorite local bar is apt to go out of business if they don’t rein the practice in a little.Giveaways as the primary form of customer appreciation make the gesture rote. I blame many bartenders for lack of candor and imagination. There are so many ways to finesse a situation, and I feel a free drink is often the laziest–as well as the most expensive. Picking up the tab for something a customer already was going to order doesn’t feel that special.The pro move would be to include you in some way. A good bartender will give you a healthy sip of the 10-year tawny port she’s pouring for another table, noticing it would go well with your dessert. Or maybe she’ll let you try the new beer on tap with the local, aged sheep cheese that just hit the menu or delivers a little bit of bubbly when you say you’re celebrating a raise. Erik Hakkinen of Zig Zag is ever so humble about dropping knowledge on his guests, one ounce at a time. Service is about the little touches, and none of these things would cost as much as two free drinks, but all of them would make a much bigger impression on you, good customer, while letting you know we are grateful.Got a question for the bartender? Email me at