Help us get service
September 1, 2011 4:18 PM   Subscribe

Why are my boyfriend and I invisible at bars?

Last night, my boyfriend and I went to have dinner at a tavern near our home. It's a cheap sports bar with self-seating. We sat at a table and waited for service. It never came.

The place was busy (it normally is that time of night) but about three waitresses passed us by without saying a word to us. We waited about 15 minutes, even making eye contact with a couple of waitresses who passed us right by, and finally left when some people who sat down right next to us got service immediately.

We've had subpar service in this place before, but something similar also happened at another bar a week ago. That time, a waitress took our drink order and then we waited 10 minutes while we never received our drinks or got our food order taken, so we left.

These two experiences might just be coincidental bad service, but anyone out there with experience waiting: are there customers you avoid for whatever reason? Is there something we're possibly doing or look like that could keep us from getting service? We're both in our mid 20s and generally don't dress up.

posted by girih knot to Society & Culture (46 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Talk to the waitresses/bartenders. They are bars, it is busy. Get over it and be more assertive.
posted by TheBones at 4:21 PM on September 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

Be assertive, but also be elsewhere.
posted by tumid dahlia at 4:22 PM on September 1, 2011 [15 favorites]

Bars are like this. In a busy bar servers are already working at capacity, you have to be aggressive.
posted by 2bucksplus at 4:22 PM on September 1, 2011

You didn't do a thing, the service just sucks.
posted by facetious at 4:23 PM on September 1, 2011

Making eye contact is not enough to get service anywhere, really, is it? Make some sort of indication that you need help. A raised hand, an "excuse me". It's a bar, not a fancy restaurant, if you want help it is correct and polite to ask for it.
posted by brainmouse at 4:26 PM on September 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

Just to be clear, "be aggressive" means: make eye contact and hold your index finger up in the air = international sign for please come take my order.
posted by likeso at 4:26 PM on September 1, 2011

Generally at bars, people may order drinks at the bar and sit down at the tables to drink. It is kind of expected that you flag down the service staff if you want to order something. You made eye contact, but did you wave them over, or give some indication that you wanted to order? Its the same when you walk up to the bar and try to get a drink. You really have to make it known to the bartender that you want to order.
posted by ShootTheMoon at 4:27 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

it seems you lack assertiveness. at a self seating, cheap sports bar you need to learn "excuse me..." as a waitress passes you by. don't be rude, but put a commanding tone behind it. they'll turn, you'll say "we're ready to order" and they'll either take your order or send the waitress over.

i wouldn't even consider this bad service at that sort of place. yes, it'd be nice if they noticed every new person that walked in, but they probably see a couple hundred people a day. if you don't look like you need something (by being assertive and getting their attention with words instead of facial expressions) then they probably assume someone else has taken care of you.

it might be off base, but are you guys socially anxious? because i am and sometimes that manifests in me trying to make myself look as small as possible and to also never be a bother. sometimes that has people over looking me. i can stand at a counter where someone's back is turned for 5 minutes before they ever see me. it's almost always because i'm doing my "small as a mouse thing" (and i'm not small, i'm 5'10, 200lbs).
posted by nadawi at 4:29 PM on September 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

Some people -- waiters and waitresses included -- are passive-aggressive dicks. Possibly with good memories. Have you tipped poorly* at either of those places in the past? Is there something about you that makes you not seem like their typical patrons? (Examples: Is everyone else middle-aged? Is everyone else dressed up?)

* 15% or less in the US; less than 18% in some cities.
posted by supercres at 4:30 PM on September 1, 2011

When you say "make eye contact," do you mean you also smiled, opened your mouth as if to ask for something, inclined your head towards the table, pointed at the menu, and just generally looked expectant? If you slipped through the cracks, simply looking at the staff and maybe smiling politely won't get you anywhere. Especially not at a cheap sports bar during a busy time of night. I doubt someone along the line sized you guys up and decided to ignore you, so it's probably unconscious signals you're sending out saying "we don't need any help right now."
posted by lilac girl at 4:32 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with brainmouse. Making eye contact whilst you're seated really isn't enough, especially if they are busy. I doubt it's anything personal. Definitely try raising your hand in the air and saying "excuse me" with a smile on your face next time. That should do the trick. They might signal to you that they'll be right back but they shouldn't forget about you that way. In general you should just go to the bar and order directly if you just want some drinks.
posted by [vagabond] at 4:33 PM on September 1, 2011

If it's self seating many waitresses will assume someone else is taking care of you unless you're getting their attention (e.g. Excuse me!).

Ten minutes is not necessarily that long for a drink order to be returned depending on how busy the place is. At that point though I would get up and flag the waitress.
posted by xammerboy at 4:35 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maybe based on your appearance or demeanor, they think you won't tip appropriately?

Tipping well and becoming a regular or semi-regular is the key here. You'll get good service if you are known amongst the staff as being pleasant customers who tip well.

Please always tip generously. It pays off and it is a nice thing to do.
posted by jbenben at 4:39 PM on September 1, 2011

You were supposed to get drinks at the bar, or ask for service.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 4:41 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Tipping well and becoming a regular or semi-regular is the key here.

Ugh. "Go there lots and spend heaps of money and then spend heaps more in tips and eventually you'll get good service." Fail.
posted by tumid dahlia at 4:42 PM on September 1, 2011 [13 favorites]

Heh. This has happened to me in almost completely empty bars. I've always assumed it was because I was with a female friend, not a boyfriend. If that's not it, I assume it's because a) they're looking for "cooler" people, whether that's locals/regulars, or something relating to the way you look/are dressed/behave. Or b) that there's a way things are done in that particular place (i.e. not sitting down at a table first) and you guys are not doing it, and they're not willing to tell you. Either way, they don't deserve your money.

(It can make for great stories, though. There's this one bar in Savannah that ignored my friend and I SO HARD, we still laugh about it years later.)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:45 PM on September 1, 2011

This used to happen quite regularly to a friend of mine some 10 years ago, but it wasn't restricted to bars/restaurants. He was poorly served at virtually every customer service outlet (ticket windows, retail shops etc.). So, over a period of 2-3 months, some of us trained him to be more assertive. We'd go to a bar/restaurant and deliberately not make eye contact, raise our hand or do anything that might catch a server's attention. It was basically his job to make sure that we got served. Over time, he managed to learn to be more assertive and get service. It's not rocket science (though, as an aerospace engineer, he wouldn't have minded even if it was).

I should note, however, that any establishment where this happens as a matter of routine is probably not worth spending money at anyway. Sometimes, bad service is just bad service.

So, if this is happening to you at many places, as your question implies, then you could try being more assertive. But it is also quite possible that you've just had a couple of bad service experiences. Collect more data!
posted by vidur at 4:47 PM on September 1, 2011

Ugh. "Go there lots and spend heaps of money and then spend heaps more in tips and eventually you'll get good service." Fail.

A business that assumes unknown patrons will be bad tippers won't be around long. My guess (and, I think, jbenben's guess) was that there was an incident in the past (OP mentioned previous bad service) that led to the waitstaff taking a less-than-favorable view towards OP.

Either it's worth it to you to erase that assumption or it's not, and you should go elsewhere (or at least not go there for a while).
posted by supercres at 4:47 PM on September 1, 2011

I see no reason to think you're being discriminated against or sized up. The first place, the cheap sports bar, clearly takes orders at the bar only. The second place just forgot. It happens. It's bad, but it's not a mystery.
posted by John Cohen at 4:49 PM on September 1, 2011

Don't do things like snap, yell , or flick lighters. They will ignore you if you do that.

Here is what you do, stand at the bar, Look decisive, like you know what you want to order and aren't going to spent 10 minutes figuring it out with them standing there, don't look around like you are a fish out of water. Look right at them , as soon as they make eye contact hold up 1 finger, give them an upward nod and smile. Give them 1 dollar per drink tip for the first round.

I get great service using this technique, I also get every fourth drink free in most bars, even ones I've never been in before.
posted by Ad hominem at 4:51 PM on September 1, 2011 [5 favorites]

This isn't necessarily a good idea at restaurants, but at other businesses, if I need the attention of someone that works there, I just try walking somewhere I obviously shouldn't. Immediately someone will show up, look surprised, and ask "Can I help you?"
posted by BurnChao at 4:59 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all the great answers! We will start being more assertive.
posted by girih knot at 5:05 PM on September 1, 2011

@tumid dahlia: Couldn't agree more. It's just bad service if it's like that. I was in a café near the Eiffel tower the other month and myself and two others simply ordered a coffee each (horrendously overpriced to begin with). We were polite throughout. There were only two waiters and the café was almost empty except for one other couple but they took ages to serve us and were extremely arrogant in the process. When we tried to pay it took them forever to take our money and bring back the change. After about 15 minutes we mentioned that we'd like our change back and the waiter told us their till was broken with a stupid smirk on his face. One of the arrogant waiters finally came back and counted our change almost cent by cent. It was very weird. Also, they gave us back more change than they should have. On purpose, I believe. Needless to say, we left without giving a tip. And took the extra change. So yea, sometimes waiters are just dickheads. Possibly to people who don't seem like they will leave a massive tip. This is just horrendous service however and there is no excuse for it.
posted by [vagabond] at 5:09 PM on September 1, 2011

I agree, I think you're describing terrible service. Making eye contact should be enough. I would be pissed if I had to make special special effort to get service/attention. The only exception is if these are places where there's like one wait person for a huge bar --if that's the case, then you just have to be patient and curse the terrible management of the place.
posted by sweetkid at 5:23 PM on September 1, 2011

Ooh, I can do this one.

Getting served at bars quickly is all about presence. Walk up to the bar, put your arms on it, settle. Feel comfortable. Now, look at the barperson. Not angrily, just calmly. Don't take your eyes off them - you'll have an internal voice screaming 'this is rude, this is rude' - ignore it.

Now try and lean forward inside yourself - as though you were sitting opposite somone ready to catch their hat when they nodded. Eyes still on the barstaff. If they look at you, raise your finger a little.

You'll be served in a flash.

Also, try a different bar, the one you describe is rude as hell.
posted by Sebmojo at 6:03 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here is what you do, stand at the bar, Look decisive, like you know what you want to order and aren't going to spent 10 minutes figuring it out with them standing there, don't look around like you are a fish out of water. Look right at them , as soon as they make eye contact hold up 1 finger, give them an upward nod and smile. Give them 1 dollar per drink tip for the first round.

Ha, that's what I get for not reading the thread.

Still, independent corroboration and all :)
posted by Sebmojo at 6:04 PM on September 1, 2011

In new york it can be tough at the bars, lean in, have money out and order fast. If seated and unhappy with service do what the above commenter said, just get up and walk towards waitstaff, or anywhere really, they usually respond. I am from a smaller place and I understand not wanting to be rude but it's your night out and you don't want to be sitting there silently seething. (That being said I took a friend to a restaurant in TO and got ignored so badly we had to leave...but it was empty and we were fish out of water and feeling it).
posted by bquarters at 6:54 PM on September 1, 2011

lol@sebmojo. THIS. It works every time. Steps to getting served at a busy bar:

1) Find a spot to squeeze in and put your elbows on the bar. In the words of The Killers: Smile like you mean it (but only slightly)
2) Keep still and never take your eyes off the bartender. Smile.
3) If he/she still doesn't notice: lean forward, possibly raise your hand. Smile.
4) If the previous steps haven't worked, stare at them and nod, possibly raise an empty glass. Smile.
4) WIN
posted by [vagabond] at 6:54 PM on September 1, 2011

addendum: it does definitely help if you're holding a bank note at all times. :)
posted by [vagabond] at 6:58 PM on September 1, 2011

I agree with all the people encouraging you to be more assertive. I'd just like to add that if you preface the assertiveness with a friendly,"When you have a moment ...," you're likely to get better service. As in, "When you have a moment, we're ready to order." I was in the industry for years, and loved my customers who did this because it was an acknowledgment that I might be busy with someone else, and they weren't implying I was a a slacker or ignoring them. I do it myself now every single time I order and it makes for a far more pleasant experience all around.
posted by lassie at 6:59 PM on September 1, 2011 [5 favorites]

On your way in, look for a server. Make eye contact with them. Smile and wave or nod or whatever you like to do in silent greeting. Sit. Get served.
posted by cmoj at 7:30 PM on September 1, 2011

All the people saying, hold money in hand, keep your eyes trained on the bartender, raise your finger and open your mouth any time they look at you...Sometimes, it just doesn't work. About 8 years ago, I got pizza at a local bar/pizzeria/rock club. Tipped *very* well. After dinner I went up to the bar to get a beer and wait for the show to start. Twenty in hand, I stared at the bartender - who'd been my server - for twenty fucking minutes while he served other patrons. Even served them another round, in a couple cases. I look kinda whitebread, and have no tattoos, piercings, or "punk" (whatever that is) clothing. THe bartender did, as did almost everyone else in the place. A couple times he looked straight at me, paused a beat, then looked away.

Sometimes you just can't get a drink from a particular place. It's a good reason to avoid the place in the future.

(only returned to that bar once, since. Free show. Same bartender(s). I took up too much space at the bar and did not order a goddamn thing all night. Fuck that place and its hipper-than-thou attitude.)
posted by notsnot at 8:10 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

addendum: it does definitely help if you're holding a bank note at all times. :)

As a former bartender, I feel like I should warn you to be careful about this. There is a difference between holding money (really doesn't matter much) and waving it at a bartender (like a matador waves a red flag at a bull). Especially if the bartender is busy. Good bartenders have a mental picture of the current state of the queue; they know where basically everyone in need of service is, and in which order they appeared. This may not seem obvious to you as a patron, because the bartender momentarily has their back turned or seems to just be standing there (pouring a beer or making someone's drink, most likely). Don't assume they're ignoring you or don't know you need service until they've clearly served some other person who showed up after you.

If you're trying to flag me down and buy your way in front of the nice patrons who are patiently waiting, I'm just going to make you wait longer, and I'm nice... I know bartenders who will loudly call you out for being incredibly rude.
posted by axiom at 8:10 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

@axiom: I didn't mean obnoxiously waving bills at the bartender. I agree that it would be a terribly rude thing to do. But if the bartenders are busy and the bar is packed, holding a bill in your hand in a subtle manner when you're trying to order will speed up the process. That has been my experience at least.
posted by [vagabond] at 9:27 PM on September 1, 2011

Don't forget the eyebrow flash.

eye contact
eyebrow flash
up nod
hand raise

Choose some or all, depending on how much trouble you're having.
posted by anaelith at 11:51 PM on September 1, 2011

Coming at this from a different perspective - I'm one of those people who's invisible to servers, salespeople, etc. I'm no shrinking violet, I can be quiet assertive when I need to be, but I've lost count of the number of times I've waited to be served, someone's come up alongside me, the bartender/saleslady has gone to serve them, I've said "Excuse me, I was here first" and they've said "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't see you". This has happened in restaurants, bars, banks, department stores, small stores, anywhere you expect to find customer service.

I don't think it can be wholly attributed to deliberate rudeness - I think that there are some people (me being one of them) who just don't register on the radar and that, until I speak up, they genuinely don't see me standing there.

I remember once there was a promotion for a new car at my local supermarket and I walked round and round the car, examining it carefully, I tried the doors (locked) and then stood right in front of the two salesmen waiting for them to notice me. RIGHT in front of them, invading their personal space. I didn't look like a time-waster, I'm a middle-aged woman, and I was in fact very interested in this particular vehicle. But I turned and walked away when they continued to ignore me. They weren't even having a conversation, they were just looking through me.

This 'invisibility' also has its advantages - I'm never stopped by people wanting me to answer a survey, or handing out leaflets or any of that shit.

I know most people reading this will say 'bullshit, it's just bad service' but those people don't 'get it' because it doesn't happen to them. I know from past experience that there'll also be a fair number of people nodding their heads in agreement, because they find themselves to be 'invisible' to service people.
posted by essexjan at 2:28 AM on September 2, 2011 [5 favorites]

This is a really random observation, I won't go into the whole bar etiquette spiel, but at the bar I work at, the tables in the dining room have a whole different dynamic. Its a seat your self place, but we have a secret code as to whether a table has been "claimed" by a particular server. If there are menus on a table, that table is taken, and a server has claimed them.

This system has a fatal flaw, our menu's are pretty readily assessible by the main entrance and in the dining room themselves. Often patrons grab them when they seat themself. Its not like the place comes with an instruction manual. "Please seat yourself, please do not take a menu".

Menus on the table mean the customer is almost invisible to other servers, therefore no one would not assume they needed help if they just caught an eye. If they flagged me down, I'd apologize and take their order. If I noticed that a table had gone without drinks for a while I'd say, "Is someone grabbing y'alls drinks?" Hopefully this all happens very quickly before anyone has a chance to get upset.

Is it possible that there was some secret code there? I know it can make you sound silly, but I am always been a proponent of quickly asking a staff person how this place works the first time I go somewhere.
posted by stormygrey at 6:04 AM on September 2, 2011

Usually after waiting for a few minutes, I will flag someone down and ask where I need to go to be put on the waiting list for a table.
posted by fromageball at 6:33 AM on September 2, 2011

I'm a waitress and the restaurant where I currently work is kind of an upscale sports-ish (ESPN on the TVs, but no sound) bar.

While we do have a hostess during dinner hours (say, 5-10:30), who will seat people, give them menus, and make sure a server knows that they have that table, later in the evening things get more casual and it's more like the place you describe. People just walk in and seat themselves and hopefully get served.

In response to your question, I honestly think you've been going to places with really bad service. Because here's the thing, even though people at my restaurant do wander in and seat themselves and get drinks from the bar, which means I will ignore them as they are doing fine, if I pass a table repeatedly that has no drinks in front of them, and looks expectant, and makes eye contact with me- I would definitely know that that this is a table that needs someone's attention.

And even if I know that I'm not due for a table or that this is someone else's section normally, I would certainly want to check in and make sure that this table is being served, doesn't need menus (or wants to put in an order, or whatever).

That said, when it's late and it's busy and people are just kind of drifting around from the bar and tables and back, the burden of getting served is occasionally on the customer. If you've been happily getting drinks from the bar and decide you want to order some food, you will have to flag me down and ask me to put in an order for you. This is not rude at all, this is the only way I'll know that you want anything from me.

Just do me one favor: don't be one of those people who sits down, asks me for menus (at this point I will assume you want to be waited on, by myself or one of my colleagues), and then after I explain our drink specials and go to fetch you some water while you peruse our extensive draft list, goes to the bar to get drinks. I would've gotten those for you!
posted by Aubergine at 8:26 AM on September 2, 2011

I know you seated yourself, but as stormygrey says, was there anything on the table? Many of the places I worked didn't have assigned sections, and we would mark that someone had already picked up the table by placing cocktail napkins down - is it possible that there were, and the servers you made eye contact with just weren't the ones who claimed your table? It may also explain why the people seated next to you were served right away. Just a guess, although after that long at least one of the servers should have noticed you didn't at least have drinks in front of you, in which case, bad service.

(Also, I'd recommend having a good concept of being incredibly busy. If I'm tending bar and it's six people deep and you ask me for some ridiculous blended concoction that takes forever to make... yeah, I'm going to ignore you in the future. Not saying that's what you did, but I am saying that's what happens.)
posted by sephira at 10:02 AM on September 2, 2011

I have waitressed in both bars and restaurants. And I've also been the ignored customer several times. My solution, when ignored, is to leave, but first I ask to speak to a manager and I tell them exactly why I'm leaving.

I've had instances where after waiting too long, I flagged down a server, or even two, and was told they'd be with me in a moment, and they never came back. In one instance, after we had been waiting 30 minutes and had tried flagging someone down, a bunch of us, who were all waiters, took out hundred dollar bills and laid them on the table. We were still ignored, so then we literally taped the $100 bills to our foreheads. And it still took 15 minutes before a server asked us what we were up to. We finally got waited on (we didn't leave that time because we were there to see a band and had paid a hefty cover charge), but we also told the manager what had gone on, and that we were never coming back.
posted by MexicanYenta at 10:04 AM on September 2, 2011

My boyfriend tends to get ignored at bars, but he hates making eye contact and he has fairly narrow eyes, so it's often hard to tell if he's looking at you or not.

I have also trained him to loosen his paranoia a bit at restaurants - he (understandably) hates letting his credit card out of his control, so after the check comes, he has a tendency to put his card into the check-holder-thingy, and the put it on the table and rest his arms on it, apparently so that no fiendishly agile pickpocket can swipe it. The net result is that the server can't see that we're ready to pay, and doesn't come by to pick the check and card up until my boyfriend's about to get boiling mad and is glaring at them. I've finally convinced him to at least sit it out on the table so it can be seen.

We also overtip at restaurants we really like, which results in the servers remembering who we are and that we're there. (This policy also gets our pizza delivered first on the driver's run.)
posted by telophase at 12:09 PM on September 2, 2011

Some possibilities:

1) Something about you that you're not really conscious of is connecting you in the server's mind with some group of people that they think of as overly demanding or lousy tippers or both. You're too old, you're too young, you have tattoos and piercings (or not), you've got your Juggalo makeup on (or not), etc. They may not even be conscious of it.

2) Some of the worst service I've had in recent years came from places that were about to go out of business. Whether there was some sort of fucked-up goings-on behind the scenes that contributed both to the bad attitudes of bartenders and waitstaff, or the lack of business was so discouraging in terms of the servers getting such meager tips that they stopped trying even when they did get customers, I don't know. I'm sure that the shitty service hastened their decline.

3) If you're going in late (which I often prefer, especially in bars), they simply may be tired and/or starting closing-up activities.

4) Simple bad luck.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:50 PM on September 2, 2011

Something occurred to me that seems fairly likely. You say both of these were at bars. At the bars that serve food that I frequent, the waitstaff is all cut at 11 or earlier. Once they're cut, though, they probably still have a few tables to watch, side work, etc., so they're still walking around looking as if they're on duty, but they're not. Not only that, but they might be especially busy during this time that they're on the floor but not on duty.
posted by cmoj at 5:37 PM on September 2, 2011

Oh, also, for getting bar service: If you're going to open a tab, take your card and stick it in the little nubbins on the bar mat so that it's standing up, facing behind the bar. It's very conspicuous, but you're not the dick snapping his fingers or the psycho staring for five minutes.

With rare exceptions, bartenders and waiters aren't ignoring you. They're busy and tired. Maybe a little drunk.
posted by cmoj at 5:41 PM on September 2, 2011

I know most people reading this will say 'bullshit, it's just bad service' but those people don't 'get it' because it doesn't happen to them. I know from past experience that there'll also be a fair number of people nodding their heads in agreement, because they find themselves to be 'invisible' to service people.

THIS. X 1,000. Being a middle-aged, well heeled woman who would be hard to miss, the above statement is TRUTH and not bullshit at all. Oblivious service people absolutely frost my backside and usually do not receive a tip. Do not be afraid to walk out if you are not acknowledged after a reasonable amount of time of your arrival. Your departure will most likely be caught on security cameras and will make all the statement you need about the poor response from the staff.
posted by Cookbooks and Chaos at 12:38 PM on September 5, 2011

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