Ask The Salty Waitress: How Should I Tip If I'm At A Bar But Not Drinking Alcohol?

Dear Salty, I quit drinking recently, cold turkey, and am learning how to navigate in the sober world. I still frequent a place or two that are not strictly bars, but that do have a bar, but I just order a club soda. Club soda is usually no charge, so I tip the bartender a few bucks on the first drink, as a kind of rent. Is that enough? Do I need to tip for each refill? Same for sodas? I don't want a beer (well, maybe), but I also don't want to be a pain to the bartender.

—Hating it on the wagon


Dear On The Wagon,

All snark and sass and salt aside, good on you for making a change for yourself. I wish you the best of luck and hope the wagon ride gets more comfortable.

To your question—I wish you'd said whether or not you're ordering food at the bar. If you are, then just tip on the total bill at the end like you would with any meal. So if your burger and club sodas comes to $15, throw down a few dollars in gratuity and you'll be totally square. If you're not ordering food but just hanging out, enjoying the view and the NFL Sunday Ticket and the company of your off-the-wagon pals, that's a little more complicated.

Your non-drinking butt on that barstool is taking up real estate, which is more okay under certain circumstances than others. If it's a slow time at the bar with plenty of open seats, I wouldn't worry too much about sitting at the bar rather than in the dining area. But let me give you a bar owner's inner monologue: If the bar is packed and it looks like there are booze-buying customers waiting while you're sipping you free Coke refills, the owner would rather you not take up that money-making real estate. Maybe tip big enough on that first refill and we'd be square, but that's up to you. You'll have to feel it out.


Let's get to your specific question about tipping: You're right to tip even if you're just drinking club soda or iced tea or Sprite or whatever. It'll earn you goodwill with the bartender and make you feel less guilty about sitting at the bar. Something like two to five bucks will cover it, depending how long you sit there. No need to go crazy with the tips unless you're feeling generous.

Another suggestion: I'm not sure what kind of bar you hang out at, but if it's a nicer place, you might be able to ask the bartender to make you a nonalcoholic drink that's more interesting than club soda. I hate the word "mocktail," but non-alcoholic drinks have come a long way in the past few years. Most halfway nice bars can make you some combo of juice and syrups and soda that's more interesting than seltzer. They cost more than club soda, so then you can tip on them like you would a normal cocktail. And bartenders enjoy the challenge, anyway.

Last bit of gentle advice, and this comes from a gal who's dealt with alcohol abuse in her own family: You've got to find activities that go on outside of bars, too. You said you're still trying to navigate the sober world, and part of that is staying away from temptation. Find some (sober) fishing buddies, join a sports team, take cooking classes, whatever. Until you learn to have fun away from booze, the wagon ride is gonna stay bumpy. I'm rooting for ya.


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