In the Epicurious blog, Michael Y. Park notes a trend that is nothing if not distressing: the disappearance of the "buy-back" - that on-the-house round that good bar customers (used to) get after buying a couple of drinks.
I spent many hours during my early bar-going years planted on one barstool or another, single-handedly lowering the average customer age at McGarvey's. It's not the oldest bar ever, but it is something of an Annapolis institution and, in my experience, both the clientele and staff adhere to old schoolish pub guidelines in the best kind of way: big tips, patience (on both sides) and, yes, regular buy-backs.
The tradition isn't limited to places that cater to an older crowd, either. I live in a college town now and before we had Dixon, Cooper and I went out fairly often. We were good customers and, as a result, were bought drinks by bartenders everyplace from Souris' to Bateman's.
Except for one place, and that's the reason for this post. There used to be a tiny dive on York Road in Towson called Angel's Grotto. It was dirty and cramped and half the songs on the jukebox wouldn't play. For whatever reason, we saw a lot of charm in it - especially since it wasn't as overrun with college kids as some of the other local places. And the bartenders were nice, too - super friendly and good to talk to.
But the owner was a gigantic jerk. And despite the hundreds of drinks we bought there, he never bought us one single round back.
And that is, actually, why we just stopped going. The bar has changed hands now, but we have such negative associations with the place that I'm not sure we'll ever return (forgetting, for a minute, that we're old now and have a baby, so our bar-hopping days are slightly behind us anyway).
The moral of this story, though, is one that I beg bar owners to heed: a little love goes a long way. The distinct absence of love goes a long way, too - just not in the right direction. Let the buy-back live. Please.