A Girl Named George
April 4, 2017
The history of the bar, at least in my mind, always starts with the Hollywood version of The Wild West: angsty, dusty, hat-wearing cowboys moseying on up to the bar for booze, hunched over a hot meal, trading conversation with a no-nonsense bartender.
I’ve always found comfort in those scenes. Bars are for people who need tending and treats. Tending means you come in with need and the bartender makes sure you leave full with the things you needed. If I have an approach to tending bar, it is rooted in that image of the lone cowboy diner.
Very rarely is that cowboy a woman. A woman who decides to dine at a bar alone has some version of the following expectations:
She loves food and intends to have a long, beautiful, coursed-out meal.
She will need a book to avoid eye contact with men. She will not get through a page of her book without being spoken to.
(The book is more of a prop really.)
She will be asked three to five times if she is there alone, then three to five times why she is there alone.
She has a 50% chance of being tapped or touched on the shoulder or arm to interrupt her meal or “reading” for those questions to be asked.
She’ll sometimes feel obligated to talk to a male solo diner who plies her with questions even letting her food get cold as she listens.
As a female bartender, I silently plead for eye contact with these women. I’m picturing that lone cowboy and the simple freedom of his time at the bar and wanting that for her. Tending bar for a woman alone often requires removing obstacles; no one taps a cowboy on the shoulder unless they want a gunfight. It’s only fair to expect the same from a cowgirl.
So, we bartenders use service techniques to carve away to the simplicity that her experience should be. A quick conversation about her night, keeping an eye out for a strategic bar stool, tucked in a bit with less exposure. We read her first interaction with another guest to see how it makes her feel, and watch, watch, watch with a sly eagle eye to make sure she gets to have a damn meal and some booze in peace. If she wants to meet people, then we stay out of her way. Ideally, she doesn’t notice the moving parts, does not feel our choices, but simply enjoys her food and drink.
One of my favorite regular female solo diners was George, from Seattle. The first time she dined alone, she quietly ordered a bottle of Champagne that she insisted on sharing with our bar staff and stayed for a full dinner, drinks, and dessert. With every subsequent visit, she ordered — and shared — a different bottle of Champagne. George seemed to live outside the need for our typical techniques. We got excited when she walked in, breaking character as serious-face bartenders. She never seemed to need tending, and she sometimes made me wonder if I was overdoing it with the protective, no-nonsense approach.
I got to know George better and better — along with our wine list too, for that matter — and one night she told me she never dined solo in her hometown. Our little ritual had sprung from the necessities of traveling alone, but had evolved into something bigger. We made her feel so welcome, so excited about new flavors, and so comfortable that from the first night she almost forgot she was at a bar, and certainly forgot that she was a party of one. It was about accessing a new level of the dining experience.
George, the champagne-sharing, starter-second-course-third-course-dessert-eating, confident, generous, holy-shit-how-do-become-her-cowgirl told me that we tended bar all the way back to the fantasy — the scene where it’s not about being a woman alone at a bar: it’s about a person who is hungry and thirsty and doesn’t need anything getting in the way.
George has become a legend for me. She is a role that I yearn to cast nightly. She’s that solo diner willing to go all-in and entrusting me to provide a bubble of comfort in which she can settle onto her bar stool, enjoy a fabulous meal, and not be bothered by anything but an empty glass.