Here’s a handy chart detailing how bartenders handle [tap] water-only bar requests based on the establishment type. As I’ve previously mentioned, fighting your way through the crowd, rolling up to a busy bar, and demanding water “with lemon and a straw,” has got be one of the easiest ways to piss of bartender. There are several issues at play as probably 1/2 of folks who start off their bar conversation with water requests: (1) won’t spend another dime – no revenue for the bar (2) they won’t tip at all (3) they’ll occupy precious bar real estate and stools, further robbing you of potential income.
I didn’t make up the rules. I didn’t start this American culture of handing over a gratuity at bar. I don’t necessarily agree or disagree with it. But, it is what it is and you can bet your ass I’m going to continue taking advantage of the practice as long as it exists. It’s what I thrive on. There is no salary to speak of in the Bartending profession. That said, I’m in zero hurry to change the custom lest I starve.
Long, long ago (like 20 years ago), my scraggly, old Keith Richards look-alike bartending mentor, taught me all kinds of gems about “the life.” He taught me much of what I know in a dank, mock bar while chain-smoking Marlboro Reds (you could still do that in NYC at that time). Among many valuable lessons he conveyed was that: you should expect a [cash] tip for every service you provide a customer - including requests for tap water, toothpicks, advice on where to go, passing a note/message to a potential hookup, where to score blow, etc.
Types of bar management run the gamut from solo owner/manager gigs to worldwide, nit-picky, mega-corporate chains. Your leeway, or lack of leeway, in dealing with stupidity, high-maintenance customers, and altercations varies accordingly. The truth is, how you react to douchebags at your bar is highly dependent on your management’s style. So, here’s your guide in order of severity. Enjoy.