Many of the travelers I’ve had the good fortune to get to know over the years fall into an interesting (and somewhat dichotomic) category. They prefer solo travel, still love meeting people on the road, and yet they’re not terribly extroverted.
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Chatting up other travelers in the hostel common room is all well and good, but when you’re in an unfamiliar place it’s helpful to get insider tips from the people who live there – not just the ones who are passing through. Meeting locals isn’t always easy, though, since they often have little vested interest in befriending someone who’ll be gone in a few days.
How does a traveler meet the locals, then? It’s simple – sit at the bar.
Now before someone at AA complains, I’m not even necessarily talking about the kind of bar where alcohol is the only thing on offer – I’m talking about any dining establishment with a counter and stools (and yes, sometimes, the bar kind of bar).
I’ve gotten into the habit of sitting at the counter whenever I can, no matter where I am – whether I’m traveling or I’m at a favorite restaurant at home. Here are my top four reasons why you should always sit at the bar/counter.
#1: Sitting at the bar alone is less weird-looking than sitting at a table alone.
One of the downsides to solo travel is the dreaded Dining Alone scenario. “Table for one” always sounds so depressing – and, depending on where you are, you’ll get outright looks of pity from the waitstaff (thanks a lot, Italy). Sitting at the bar or counter by yourself, however, draws far less unwanted attention.
Nevermind the images you have of that guy who’s at the bar every night by himself getting plastered, you don’t have to be that guy just because you’re seated by yourself at the counter. Although even that is a more desirable assumption from other diners than the “poor thing, eating alone, must have gotten dumped” you’d get by yourself at a table.
#2: People who work behind the counter are chatty.
There are some professions that seem to lure the extroverted among us. Successful B&B owners are never misanthropes, for instance. Hairdressers don’t usually limit themselves to one-word answers. Likewise, people who work at the bar are typically good at chit-chat. They’re happy to leave you with your thoughts or your conversation (if you’re with someone else) and aren’t compelled to interject themselves into your world, but if you make small talk with counter workers it’s often well-received and returned. This means that when you notice there’s a lull and they are, for instance, wiping down the counter, you have an opening to casually mention that you’re visiting from elsewhere and wondering if they might have a tip or two to share.
#3: Regular waiters don’t have time to dole out travel advice.
I have nothing against the regular waitstaff who deftly perform their duties carrying heavy-looking trays from kitchens to dining rooms all over the world with nary a drop spilled. Frankly, it’s partially out of respect for what looks like a challenging job that I don’t pester them with my need for travel advice.
When you’re seated at a table, your waiter may be perfectly nice, but he or she is only table-side for a minute or two to take your order, deliver your food, clear your plates, etc. In a busy restaurant, the last thing they need or want is to get sidelined by a talkative customer. At the bar, on the other hand, a counter worker can multi-task with ease – pulling a pint, drying plates coming out of the dishwasher, and talking to you at the same time.
#4: You (sometimes) get extra goodies simply by being friendly.
Do not take this last point as an invitation to ask for freebies from the bartender or the person behind the counter. That’s just being a jackass. Do, however, take it as an invitation to be warm, engaging, and nicer than you might otherwise be to said counter worker, and you might get handsomely rewarded.
I’ve gotten free cocktails in San Francisco, full glasses of wine (instead of the regular pours) in Portland, and free samples of the house specialties in Venice – all because I sat at the bar and made small talk with the person working behind it. Don’t tell my mother, but I even accepted ginger root pills from a kind bartender in San Francisco during my rock singer days when I was suffering from a hellacious upset stomach and scheduled to perform in a half-hour. (They worked a treat, and I’ve stocked my pantry with ginger pills ever since.) I’ve also been gifted with great stories, which don’t stretch my travel budget but always make a trip richer. And those are things I don’t mind telling my mother about.