All Bars Should Do Two Things

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Bars—except those that only take cash, and more power to those—would all be improved by doing two things that are already common in some parts of the country. It appears that nearly all bars in the South do these two things, for instance, while anecdotal (though intensive) reporting suggests that no bar in the Northeast or Midwest does one thing, and rarely does the other.

Are you ready?

They should (1) have water coolers where you can fetch yourself water and (2) give your card back to you when you open a tab. In New Orleans and Austin, where I’ve done most of my drinking the last four years, both are near-universal bar features; my pals in other southern states say that that’s mostly the case for them. In New York and Pennsylvania, where I’ve done most of the rest of that drinking, I’ve never come across the debit card return, and only extremely rarely encountered the self-serve water. Water coolers and returned cards on open tabs are definitely not the norm at bars in the Midwest and Northeast; results are unclear on the West Coast.


Demanding that service industry professionals change their habits to make your life easier is both cruel and unimaginative. What I’m saying is, these two reforms make everyone’s lives better. You might be thinking, bars don’t really want me to have free water because they want me to buy expensive drinks. But what bartenders want most of all is for you to not be an extremely drunken asshole in their establishment, and a consistent flow of water can help in that regard. Plus, it’s less work for the bartenders—just make sure that there are cups and the cooler is full, and that’s less work at the bar.

I will not even pretend to know the vagaries of credit card laws and regulations across the United States; it appears that there are concerns in some locations about unsigned receipts being illegal. A walked bar tab plus an automatic tip would certainly qualify as an unsigned receipt. But most of the bars I’ve been to that give your card back with an open tab have ample posted signage saying that walked tabs are subject to an automatic 20 percent tip, and I almost never close out. Again, the returned card makes life easier for bartenders and their customers—it’s one less transaction for those who are going to tip properly (if you are just joining us, that’s 20 percent!), and the customer can never leave their card at a bar. But with all that extra water in you, you’d probably be thinking clearly enough that you’d never forget to close out anyway.