Photo of Joe Pereira by Darrow Montgomery
Photo of Joe Pereira by Darrow Montgomery

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From their prime vantage point, bartenders watch other humans at their best and worst as they engage in alcohol-fueled encounters with potential paramours, uniquely positioning them to make observations about love and lust.

Earlier this spring, seven female bartenders dished on the state of dating in D.C., from the impact of online dating on people’s social skills to the false premise that breaking up in public causes less drama. 

This time City Paper asked six male bartenders with a combined 94 years of experience in the hospitality industry to share their perspectives. 

Bartenders watch daters make the same screwups.

Dating behaviors aren’t all that different, so those working behind the bar see the same mistakes repeatedly. “Cell phones are a big turn off,” says Joe Pereira, who currently works at The Park at Fourteenth. “They ruin the possibility of a second and third date. If you’re out on a date and someone leaves [their] phone on the table, it’s just a matter of time before he or she picks up that phone.”

Riad Bakeer, who bartends at Hank’s Oyster Bar at The Wharf, ticks off a couple more. “The number one is on a first date when the guy doesn’t know the chick but orders what he thinks she wants to eat,” he says. “Talking about exes is never fun, unless both people are laughing,” he adds. “But people are talking about exes too much—I’ve seen some weird fights at the bar come up over exes.” 

Washingtonians also have the bad habit of leading with the question, “What do you do?” While it’s a natural icebreaker in a city where any gathering doubles as a networking event, the probe can be troubling in a romantic setting, according to several bartenders. 

“I don’t want to call it a caste system, but there’s this mental placement people put others into,” explains Jeremy Wetmore, the lead bartender at CityBar. “It’s always ‘What do you do?’ I feel like it’s an immediate gunshot to the foot. They automatically want to put you in a hierarchy.” 

Pereira is even more cynical. “More times than not there’s always an agenda behind it,” he says. “People are looking for what people can do for each other, not just personal but professional life as well.” 

He’s worked in restaurants and bars across the country and believes the way people blur the line between dating and networking is unique to D.C. “I do see people who are conducting business and then it morphs into more personal dynamics,” Pereira says. “I’ve seen that happen at The Park. There might be an initial misunderstanding, but then people eventually start having fun with each other. They’re on a date and don’t know it. It’s unlike any other place that I’ve bartended.” 

Vomit doesn’t always ruin a date, but opposing politics certainly can. 

Is puking on a date a dealbreaker? Not according to The Green Zone bartender Will Alvarez, who saw it happen earlier in his career at a D.C. Italian restaurant. “In the middle of dinner, the lady said her stomach wasn’t feeling well,” he recounts. “She projectile vomited on the gentleman. I think it was the first date and it was the second course.” 

Instead of gagging, he changed his garb. “Luckily it was winter so he had an extra shirt,” Alvarez says. “He changed clothes in his car.” They did have to move locations. “Once you vomit in a restaurant, it’s considered a health issue. Especially back then, so we had to give them their check. It seemed like the date continued on.” The D.C. Department of Health mandates that restaurants and bars have procedures in place to minimize contamination and exposure after someone vomits and recommends removing a patron who is actively sick.

But spewing opposing political views can sink a date. Alvarez remembers two people who came into The Green Zone who he thinks met on Tinder. “At one point, she says, ‘Hey, it’s not like you voted for Trump.’” The dude didn’t confirm or deny it. “The date ended really quickly. He didn’t realize what place he was at. We’re pretty obvious about where we stand politically.” The cocktail bar pours “Fuck Trump” punch. 

When Wetmore was still working at Left Door, he observed a similar blow-up. The first hour of the date seemed fine. “Then the guy started to go on a rant about his political stance,” he remembers. He was conservative, she was liberal. “It turned into them yelling at each other at the bar about each other’s families,” he says. “He started picking fights with everyone, yelling, ‘I don’t know why you can’t respect the presidency!’ He threw his drink at the girl. It was water. It spilled all over. That’s why I had to remove him [from the bar]. She started crying. I enjoyed watching it unfold. As a bartender, this is your popcorn and movie kind of situation.”

In another scenario, the argument started over Game of Thrones but escalated into politics. “She liked Game of Thrones and he was like, ‘People who like that show are dumb,’” says Jon Schott, the beverage director at The People’s Drug and Chop Shop Taco in Alexandria. Then it was on to disagreeing about sports and politics. Schott calls the latter “a huge, scary thing at a bar.” Once they started disturbing others, Schott dropped separate checks on the bar hoping they’d call it a night. “That felt good on my end.”

More couples are “going Dutch.” But there’s a wrong way to do it on a date.

Five of the six bartenders City Paper spoke with say more people are splitting the bill when it comes time to pay—especially younger generations. “Earlier in my bartending career, it was the men that would always pay,” Alvarez says, considering heterosexual couples. “Now I see people going Dutch. I see women paying. I see a little bit of everything.” 

“There’s definitely a big push for going Dutch these days,” Schott adds. Typically, each person throws a credit card down and the bartender splits the total. “I don’t think anyone should ever ask for an itemized receipt. That’s a sign of a bad date—asking who got what … There goes the good vibes.”

Your date notices if you demean the bar staff. 

“Restaurants lend themselves to dating really well,” Schott says. “You can tell a lot about a person in that type of space: what they eat and drink; if they’re polite to strangers; and whether they’re open to sharing food.” 

“Strangers” include bar and restaurant employees. Fortunately, Bakeer says, most Washingtonians have held a service industry job before. He’s probably right. Nearly 50 percent of adults have worked in the restaurant industry at least once during their life, according to the National Restaurant Association. “A lot more empathy is coming our way,” he says. “So when a date is treating their bartender or server terribly, I think people get called out on it.” 

He remembers serving a guy behaving like “a total douchebag.” Then his date reminded him that she’s a bartender too. “She said, ‘You’re treating him like shit,’” Bakeer recalls. “He was like, ‘Ugh, whatever.’” She called the date off but decided to stay. “He tipped zero and she left 40 percent. I bought her a few drinks and went and hung out with her.”

Bartenders do sometimes swoop in to save a bad date. Current Chicken + Whiskey bartender Michael Francisco remembers a night when a girl was asking him about the cocktails at The Sheppard, where he previously worked. 

“We didn’t have a menu towards the end at The Sheppard, so you had to interact with me,” Francisco explains. “The guy was being a real asshole, asking his date, ‘Do you like the bartender? Are you trying to go home with him?’ He got really upset really quickly.” When the woman went to the bathroom, he fled. “She came back to the bar and asked where her date went,” Francisco continues. “He didn’t even pay for the tab and he had more drinks than her. I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, drinks are on us. Feel free to enjoy the space, but you don’t have a tab.’” 

People are still having sex in bar bathrooms, especially now that they’re unisex.

“As somebody who recently did this at Lyon Hall, people are definitely still banging in the bathroom,” admits Bakeer. Sometimes, he says, bars send a manager over to knock on the door if a couple is missing for a few minutes. Bakeer worked at one bar where three couples were caught in a short span. “We ended up kicking them out. When it comes to alcohol, people get gross.” 

Schott says his bar has one bathroom and only one person can go in at a time. “People try to go in two at a time on weekends,” he says. “They say, ‘Oh no, we’re just trying to make the line go faster.’ That’s not going to make anything go faster.” 

“I want to say at The Green Zone it’s happened, but it’s not blatant,” Alvarez adds. “The unisex bathrooms are playing a role.” Bars and restaurants are increasingly swapping out male and female bathrooms for ones that are gender-neutral to be more inclusive of people who identify as transgender and non-binary. 

In the case of heterosexual couples, having the unisex bathrooms removes the dead giveaway of a woman walking out of the men’s room or vice versa. “The unisex bathrooms open the doors to it, no pun intended,” Wetmore adds. “I threw someone out of Left Door the week before I left,” he says. “It definitely happened.”

But D.C. might not have the same kink factor as other cities. 

Pereira once worked as a server at a restaurant inside the Transamerica Pyramid Center in San Francisco. One day the general manager said, “You’re the new guy on the block, you’re going to need to wait on these two people.” Pereira obliged but scratched his head when the two women ordered three appetizers, three entrées, and three desserts. “I had no idea what was going on,” he says. “I kept bringing the food and even saw there was a third drink on the table.” 

When it came time to deliver the check, the women relayed that Michael had enjoyed his lunch too. “They took the check and put it underneath the table,” Pereira says. “Michael was in bondage with a chain around his neck and a leather mask on.” The throuple dined at the restaurant twice a month. Michael always paid the bill and left a 100 percent tip. “That was their thing.”