Close Out Your Bar Tab Before You Go to Your Table — Here's Why

It’s happened to all of us. We’re meeting someone at a restaurant for dinner, but one of us gets there before the other. For reasons that are 100% valid, the restaurant won’t seat the table until the full party has arrived. It matters not that one person is “two blocks away" or “looking for parking.” Rules are rules, so it’s suggested that the early bird sit at the bar and have a drink while waiting. When the remainder of the dining party arrives, does that  then ask the bartender to transfer the drink tab to the future server, or should the check be closed out and a new one started at the table? Most service industry workers would respectfully ask that the check be closed out at the bar and here’s why: It keeps things clean and simple.*

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When you're moving to the table, the bartender might ask if you want to close out or transfer, but they’re probably just being nice. They’re secretly hoping you will pay the tab so they won’t have  to figure out who to transfer it to and how to do it. Yes, they’re asking your preference, but they know what they want for an answer. It’s like asking a co-worker on Monday morning how their weekend was. They might reply with a detailed report about the last 48 hours, but you’d rather hear, “It was good, thanks!” Closing out the check means the bartender can carry on with their shift and not add a mundane task to their to-do list which already involves slicing limes and announcing what beers are on tap while standing directly in front of the beers that are on tap.  

Closing out the check also makes it easier for tipping. Tip distribution at a restaurant is a complicated algorithm. Customers leave what they want to their server or bartender, but then that tip might get pulled, stretched, divided, and reconfigured to be doled out to any number of others who helped them, from the food runner to the busser. If a $15 tab is transferred from the bar to a server, then the server has to remember that a portion of the final total of the bill was served by someone else and some of the tip needs to be reserved for the bartender. 

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But, wait, the server is probably already giving a percentage of their overall tips to the bartender, so how does that get deciphered? Tipping out is complicated enough without throwing a wrench into it. Besides, don’t you want to know that the tip you intend for the bartender actually makes it into their pocket?

Here’s another wrinkle, though. Let’s say you’re waiting at the bar and before you can even take the first sip of your wine, your dining party shows up and now the bartender is too busy to close out your check. The host is urgently ready to seat you, but you’re struggling to get the attention of the bartender so that you can close your tab and go to the table. Some people might not find that scenario stressful, but for me it’s a “red alert, I need some deep breaths” situation. In that case, maybe transferring the check is the best option. But next time, you’ll know to close out as soon as you order so you can walk away from the bar at your leisure whenever your lollygagging friends decide to show up. It really is the best way.

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* This “keeps things clean and simple” for the staff. Having a check transferred might be more complicated for the bartender and/or the server. Closing out the check does ask for slightly more effort on the part of the customer. No customer is required to make things easier for those who are serving them. Take away the customer-employee dynamic altogether and no one is expected to do anything for people they don’t really know. It’s just a nice thing to do and the world needs more nice.

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