Long live the bar, or long live table service? The jury’s out…

It's been nearly a month since bar service burst back onto the socialising scene. But can it maintain its pre-Covid status?

‘Freedom Day’ saw an influx of many pre-Covid societal staples. Clubbing, for one; weddings with unlimited numbers, for another. And then, of course, there was the return of bar service in all its shot-downing, pint-pulling glory — it was such a momentous occasion, in fact, that we’ve seen fit to provide a reminder on gentlemanly bar etiquette.

The bar is a stalwart of hospitality and social interaction. We’d hazard a guess that multiple romances have been sparked by one person catching another’s eye at the bar, whilst waiting in mutual silence and unnaturally close proximity for respective rounds of drinks to be served. There’s something thoroughly Richard Curtis-esque about a bar meet-cute; in fact, there’s something very Four Weddings and a Funeral about bar service in general. It’s beloved, it’s British (in terms of the queueing alone — more on this later), it’s a breeding ground for romantic sparks that border on the saccharine; and it reminds us of that blissful time we fondly term ‘pre-Covid’. 

But it’s that last element that makes us wonder where bar service now stands, in this new era of table service as an alternative method of ordering drinks. While bar service was on its Covid-induced annual leave, table service stepped in to take its place. It’s now been a few weeks since table service and bar service have co-existed side by side; and from the sounds of it, table service isn’t going anywhere fast.

"I didn't really want a scrum at the bar..."

“I thought the young would revert back to the old ways, and that they wouldn’t mind getting up and queuing, and all the rest,” says Clive Watson, Chairman of The City Pub Group.  “But I think because they’re very app savvy, they’ve [become] very much acclimatised to the offers that we’re giving them. Which is good, because I didn’t really want a scrum at the bar whilst we’re still coming out of the pandemic.”

As the ‘pingdemic’ would indicate, our lives are increasingly reliant on apps; and Watson is right to note that millennials and Gen-Zs have no problem navigating their way around their phones when it comes to table service. The City Pub Group certainly isn’t the only institution to offer app-based table service, in addition to the option of both bar and waiter/waitress service since restrictions lifted; and it’s presumably not the only one to notice its success, either. Why get up and stand in an unmoving, sweaty, crowded queue when you could alternatively lift the merest finger (quite literally) and tap out your order from the comfort of your table? (And the ironic thing is: when you’re standing in a queue at the bar, you’re probably scrolling through your phone anyway.)

Watson’s point about a “scrum at the bar” is also a salient one. If you’re one of the many who feels able to throw off the shackles of Covid-related fears and social distancing warnings with the bare minimum of encouragement, you’ll presumably be fairly comfortable ordering at the bar. But many others won’t be able to dismiss their internal Covid alert levels so quickly. It’s early to say, but Covid may well have changed the way we interact in crowds forever; and for anyone who still feels discomfort at the very thought of being in uncomfortably close proximity to others, table service is — surely — the preferred option.

"Bar service is quite messy..."

Plus, table service is preferred by many of those behind the bar, too. “I love table service,” says Claudia, a Front of House staff member at The Selkirk. “You get to interact better with people, and you get instant feedback. Bar service is quite messy and you only have fleeting interactions. Table service creates a much better atmosphere in the pub.”

Jon, a member of the bar staff at the Red Lion & Sun, agrees. “I think table service is better for us, and the customer,” he tells Gentleman’s Journal. “The customer has more time to consider their options and we can better control service standards: it’s a more pleasant experience all round.”

Then there’s the fact that queuing at the bar means you often miss all the fun. “I can still remember when I was at a table with ten people, and it would be my round…it was such a faff, having to go up and queue,” Watson recalls. “You can miss out on so much. I mean: if you’re having a really cracking time, and then you have to get up and go off [to the bar], you slightly miss the moment.”

He’s right. How often have you grimly accepted that it’s your turn to buy the drinks, proceeded to stand at the bar for upwards of half an hour while you wait to be served, and then returned to your table; only to learn that, in your absence, something unutterably, unforgettably hilarious has occurred — something that you weren’t party to, but that your friends will continue to quote and reminisce about for months afterward? (Ok, it’s probably not always that dramatic. But you do miss a lot of fun when you’re queueing at the bar.)

At this point, we feel it incumbent upon us to add that we’re certainly not suggesting that bar service is dead; and neither is Watson. Ordering at the bar is what many associate with a good night out at a pub (or, indeed, a bar); and for clubs, bar service is — needless to say — essential. There’s the aforementioned flirting potential; and the bar contains a cultural nostalgia that will likely never disappear. “The first order I took back behind the bar (where I belong) on Monday 19th July wasn’t weird and didn’t feel unsafe; it felt incredible,” says Joe, General Manager at The Prince George pub. “It was only in that moment I realised just how much I’d missed being behind the bar, and how table service is just not part of pub culture.”

But Watson emphasises the positives of giving customers the choice“If people want to go to the bar they can; [and that’s] great. If people want to stay at their tables and just order via the app, or via waiter/waitress table service, they can do that as well,” he explains. “So hopefully, for the customer, it’s the best of both worlds. Because they have the choice.”

Some would argue that we live in an era in which we’re oversaturated with choice. We’ve doubtless argued that in the past; and in many ways, that’s true. But having a choice between table service and bar service is choice in a hugely positive sense. For some, the bar makes their night (or afternoon — we’re not judging) what it is. For others, table service is — and will always be — infinitely preferable.

Much like Four Weddings and a Funeral, the bar is a beloved cultural institution. But, like Four Weddings, it will need to share its space with newer, updated versions of the same thing; versions that speak to the world in which we currently live. As to whether there’s space for all the versions to co-exist together? Only time will tell.

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