Three Bar Veterans Discuss House Rules on Mingling, Pick-ups and Drawing the Line
When the iconic New York bar Milk & Honey opened in 1999, it wasn’t just the cocktails that were revolutionary. The bar also introduced a set of house rules, one of which had rarely, if ever, been seen before: “Gentlemen will not introduce themselves to ladies.”
The idea of a bar that didn’t double as a pick-up location was unheard of at the time, and set the tone for an intimate, cocktail-focused atmosphere. Though New York successor Attaboy has abandoned the regulation, it’s upheld at the bar’s London outpost, and has inspired multiple other cocktail bars to follow suit, including PDT and Nashville’s Patterson House.
With the intense scrutiny that bars and drinking culture have come under in recent years involving possible sexual harassment, such a rule might seem like the simplest way to solve a complex problem. But it’s by no means a universally accepted solution.
We’ve asked three owners and managers to share their thoughts on the effects of a “no pick-up artists” policy.
Owner at the Up and Up, New York City
Our rule [see above image] was obviously inspired by Milk & Honey. I think we adopted most of their house rules. It wasn’t there originally, but we found ourselves in a situation because of our location: two groups of people had very competing ideas about what kind of place the Up and Up was. You had the cocktail people and the bar-hoppers who were just stopping in as they made their way down the street. It was proving a little difficult to maintain the atmosphere we were looking for.
The rule was there originally because if someone was bothering another person, it then gave us a foundation from which to tell them to lay off, but the bigger picture is more that it gives off the attitude of what the place is. It’s a way of indirectly but clearly saying that this is the kind of bar where people can come to be with the people they’re with. I always like to say, “If you didn’t show up with them, you’re not going home with them.” It’s to stop people from thinking that every person there is on display.
We’re not there to police friendly, genuine conversations. We’ve had at least a couple weddings of people who have met in the bar! We’re trying to stop the guy who does a lap around the room, trying to pick up every girl he sees. It helps us create an intimate, structured, safer place. It makes people more comfortable when they see it. The rule was guided by our customer base, and as far as I know, no woman has ever complained about it. I’ve found that if you’re offended by the rule, then it’s probably for you.
Beverage Director at Heritage, Chicago
I’ve been in the industry for a long time. One of the things that always struck me in the late 90s and early 2000s was that when a female coworker and I would get off work and some dude would offer to buy us a drink and we didn’t want it, it would turn into an incident. You couldn’t turn down a drink without causing a scene. People would routinely send you drinks, and it was almost always uncomfortable.
Rules across the board are tricky. It’s hard to say it’s always the right thing, or it’s never the right thing. But in many ways, I can really appreciate something like the Up and Up’s policy, because it’s not a pickup scene: You’re there to enjoy the art of a cocktail. It’s not a rule I’m against, though I’ve never had one specifically.
We don’t completely prevent men from approaching women, as long as they’re doing it respectfully. If someone wants to buy a drink for another guest, it’s good manners and safer in general for the bartender to say, “I’m going to ask them if they’re up for another drink,” rather than just setting it down in front of them.
Sometimes there’s an attitude of, “I bought that chick a drink, so she owes me five minutes of her time,” and that’s not true. Maybe she doesn’t want that drink. Maybe she doesn’t like whiskey. Whatever it is, she said no. For me at least, that’s one of the best things that’s come about in all of the changes that we’re seeing now socially. I think that my servers and bartenders are far more enlightened than I was in my 20s. We have discussions on how not to step all over somebody, whether it’s because they’re a woman, or trans, or anything else.
If a gentleman has a problem with someone rejecting his drink, then it’s his problem, not hers.
T. Cole Newton
Owner at Twelve Mile Limit, New Orleans
I’ve been struck by the number of bars that have adopted the policy, which I think affects our ability to offer hospitality at the highest level. For me, there are two reasons that I think it’s not the right policy for my bar.
First off, there seem to be a lot of places going out of their way to create a system of exclusivity. It can include dress codes, no standing room, or you’re not allowed to request modified versions of cocktails. It seems like the opposite of hospitality. These places have created something of an inhospitable environment, where some guests are made to feel unwelcome in a very specific way. You might be doing more to elevate the role of cocktails, but it’s theoretically at the expense of guest experience.
Secondly, it goes overboard. If the goal of those rules is to create a safe space, then at what cost? Since women have been welcomed into bars, they’ve become a place where people meet and mingle and maybe find someone new, and that’s a valuable thing to have in society. An element of sex negativity is also present when you take out that opportunity of what a bar can be and is for a lot of people.
We still want our bar to create a welcoming environment for everyone. We put up signs in both bathrooms saying that if anyone is making you feel unsafe, let a bartender know. And that doesn’t just apply to gender, but to race or anything else. As for sending drinks, we always first check that the recipient wants the drink. Otherwise you’re creating a transactional relationship. You’re getting somebody drunker and more susceptible to assault, and you don’t want them to feel obliged to take a drink that’s been put in front of them.
We teach our bartenders that you don’t have to wait to intervene until someone is clearly uncomfortable with a situation that’s developing. We want to prevent negative interactions, but not all interactions.