Photo by Jen Maiser

Casual drinkers beware, cocktail nerds have a new way of ordering drinks in San Francisco. No longer satisfied with set menus or even with drink specials du soir, the true cocktailian now knows how to order custom-made drinks, and it’s definitely the In thing to do.

Don’t believe me? Next time you go to a bar, take a listen. There will probably be at least one or two patrons who, after sampling a few drinks on the bar menu, will leave their next drink up to the bartender. They’ll probably give clues like, “I’d like something with Bluecoat gin and ginger” or “I’m looking for something with a bitter edge, but not Campari-bitter,” and then sit back to wait for their custom drink.

It’s akin to a diner swanning into a restaurant, disdaining the proffered menu, and instead waving a hand at the waiter, announcing, “Tell the chef to surprise me!” In that context, it sounds imperious, arrogant, and more than a bit conceited to assume the chef has nothing better to do than to whip up some special, off-menu delicacy. However, just like a sommelier ferreting out the best wines to pair with dishes, I’ve noticed that some bartenders in the Bay Area seize upon this request from their drinkers as a challenge.

Not only that, but when the drinker can talk at length about their specific preferences — often displaying an informed knowledge of liquors, liqueurs, and mixology in general — the bartender realizes, “Hey, this isn’t just another cosmojitini swiller, who doesn’t care what I make as long as it was pimped on Lipstick Mafia and goes down easy.” The bartender seems to like the fact that the drinker is not just drinking, but thinking. That, in recognition of the bartender’s prowess, the drinker is putting as much care into their ordering as the bartender puts into his or her shaking and straining.

Now, I’m not saying that you should charge into a bar, heedless of the crowds that might be there, and demand your made-to-order drink. I’m saying, take some time to learn the menu, get a rapport going with the bartender, and if he or she is not overwhelmed with orders and customers, make your move. But you can’t just say, “Surprise me!” and expect magic to swirl into your glass. No, you have to do your part as well. Explain the things you like and don’t like. Show some respect for the menu and the bar.

A New Kind of Barfly 9 April,2008Stephanie Lucianovic

  • Michael Procopio

    I love this piece. There are some bartenders (I still have a hard time using the term “mixologist”) out there with some amazing skills. It’s great to see some of them at work and, in some cases, increasing the depth and scope of the cocktail.

    Conversely… as a professional server, I see the sorry lack of communicative skill from many diners. A lot of people ask for something “other”, but can’t convey what it is they want. When I come across a person who wants something different and can communicate with some intelligence what that might be, I am always game for it. And so, fortunately, are the bartenders I work with.

    I think I need another trip out to Alembic. Soon.

  • Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic

    Aw, thanks Michael! You, me, Alembic, soon?

  • Ben

    Where can I get one of these cosmojitinis?

  • Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic

    No clue. Ask Brooke Shields. Or Lucy Liu.


Stephanie Lucianovic

A former picky eater, Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic is a writer, editor, and lapsed cheesemonger in the San Francisco Bay Area. A culinary school grad with an English lit degree, she has written for,, Popular Science, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. Additionally, she has been writing for KQED’s Bay Area Bites since its inception and is the website editor for KQED’s Emmy-award winning show “Check, Please! Bay Area.”

Stephanie was an original recapper at Television Without Pity and worked on a line of cookbooks for William-Sonoma as well as in the back kitchen of a Jacques Pépin cooking show. Her first book, SUFFERING SUCCOTASH: A Picky Eater’s Quest To Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate (Perigee Books, 2012) is a non-fiction narrative and a heartfelt and humorous exposé on the inner lives of picky eaters that Scientific American called “hilarious” and “the perfect popular science book for a reader that doesn’t think he or she wants to read a popular science book.”

Stephanie lives in Menlo Park with her husband, three-year-old son, assorted cats, and has been blogging at The Grub Report for over a decade.

Follow her on Twitter at @grubreport

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