Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Art of Last Orders

It's 2am. I have to be up at 6:30 so that I can be awake enough by 7:30, and have the grill, hot cupboard and oven hot enough to cook breakfast for these bastards. They drove up from London, got stuck in awful traffic on the M6, have had a busy week at their desk jobs and want to unwind. They did phone ahead to warn us they would be late and to ensure they could get a few drinks in; it's a stag weekend after all and many beers is one of the things they want to do.

The crack is good. These guys are respectable beer appreciators and are even drinking the 5%+ beers that our local reserved clientèle steer clear of; they have time to make up. I'm enjoying it too and ignore the voice that declares that I will regret this in the morning and will be far too grumpy with my kitchen staff for anyone's good. "Any chance of another?" they are residents and I could serve them all night, quite legally, although I could rightly refuse too. What harm would it do? We're all having fun, I can sleep in on Monday when they have all gone home.

I now no longer have the responsibility for closing a bar. As an ex-licensee I often feel guilty about any criticism levelled at a bar or pub when it decides to stop serving. It can be frustrating for punters when they fancy a drink to be refused service even when it is known what time the bar closes.

The other evening I was in a bar, a bar I am very fond of, drinking some very nice beer. It was getting late and I knew this. My assembled friends pointed out that if I didn't hurry up the bar would shut. It was about 5 minutes to eleven, my glass was empty and I did fancy just one more before I left. The bar staff had been cleaning and intermittently serving for around the last half an hour. I stood patiently at the bar hoping the bar staff would notice me.

Information, I am told, is what helps difficult situations. I was told this by a counsellor who happened to be staying at our pub on one occasion. He was a sort of headologist listening type person, rather than an ineffectual local politician type person. I had been talking to said psychologist practitioner about the stress of delivering hospitality and in particular the utter dread I had started to feel before service when we expected a busy night. Everyone wants food quickly and they always all turn up at once. An hour waiting for food becomes unacceptable in these days of fast food. "Explain up front that it's busy and most people will be happy to wait"

I'm not sure we ever got our food service the way I thought it should be, and on the evening I had been given the gem of advice to chill out and just tell people they might have to wait I had been happily chatting with my customer come shrink. I suddenly realised it was close to service time and must have visibly panicked.

Dealing with last orders when the bar needs to shut can be equally as traumatic. It's not a skill that comes easily, especially to one who likes to drink a few and also dislikes being told to stop. Often I'd casually mention that I'd like to go to bed and the current purchase would be the last. A common trick by my locals turned friends was for one to point out that the speed so-and-so was drinking he would easily finish a half. "while your at it, might as well make it a pint" and so it would go on.

You have to be brutal if you want to go to bed before you have to get up. When it's the last one it has to be the last one. It is important to make sure they know, before the bar closes, that it is now time to put in the last order. Everyone in the bar has to know this. They really, really do have to know this. Upset drunks is the alternative. Drunk people tend not to be reasonable. Not even a little bit.

So, the other night, when the staff seemed unable to make eye contact with my patient puppy dog look I finally, after several minutes, asked "have you stopped serving?", "Sorry, yes" came the reply. It was a reasonably polite and firm reply. My ex-licensee voice told me that it was OK and I shouldn't get upset. It didn't work. I hadn't been told that I needed to buy my last drink. No bell, no "Last orders at the bar please", not even a quiet word to the few people left. I have to admit to being quite annoyed. I was annoyed because I wasn't warned that the bar would close.

The good news is that the next day, when talked to the manager, he confirmed that a quiet word should have been said to each table before the bar closed. I'd have been happy with that, even if closing before advertised time; providing I managed to make my last purchase, no problem. I am assured that it will not happen again. All's well that ends well.

I'm told that in beer specialist beer bars there does tend to be an expectation that the punters will know what time the bar closes. I think this is a poor show.

People need information, we all do, let us not unlearn how to deal with last orders.


Curmudgeon said...

Possibly now that closing times are more variable and less clearly defined, the old "last orders" ritual is less commonly observed. But I agree not giving punters a warning is bad form.

To be honest, nowadays I'm very rarely in pubs at closing time, apart from those I know close at 11, so I can't comment much from recent experience.

Ghost Drinker said...

"The crack is good"? - sounds like a good night!
There was one night when I worked in a bar when my manager was getting nice and pissed off with a customer who was rather slow at drinking up (and an ass). When it came to kick out time at 11.30 he was polity asked to leave. His response was "my watch only says 25 past!!!!!!" (accompanied by slurred shouting) My manager at the time was far too gone to be arsed with anything he said, and said "well done you've got your own watch, now get your own pub!!" - What I saw next could only be described between the two as a seen from many a movie. good stuff indeed!

Brewers Union Local 180 said...

Can't help but think you miss it. Just a little.

Mark Dredge said...

Nice post Dave, an interesting look at something not often talked about. I'm not often in a pub at the end of the night (the rush for the last train having seen me leave earlier), but the warning is good form, a little politeness. I think we like to have a sense of time to things, knowing that it'll start at this time or finish at that time, so that we can maximise the experience. If there are no closing times (the Euston Tap, for example, which when we walked in at 9.30 last Sunday said they were closing in 30 minutes) then a word to say what's happening is just polite.

Unknown said...

Mudgie, I think since the relaxation last orders, as such, is not that essential. Many bars and pubs close down in a quiet subdued way and this is good.

Ghost, the scene I describe is a conglomeration of many fuzzy nights. Many very enjoyable nights.

BUL180, indeed.

Mark, the example you give of The Euston Tap is perfect. To stop serving at 10pm is perhaps a little early, but providing you know what is happening ahead of time it gives you a change to make your last purchase before the bar closes.

Anonymous said...

"What time do pubs close?" was actually a question on my "Life in the UK Test" (the test I had to take to remain in the UK.) I don't think I got the answer right-- from my extensive experience drinking until closing, I couldn't really deduce a standard time at all. The laws had recently changed, as well! I still don't know the "real" answer!

Neville Grundy said...

I am often in pubs at closing time, and it is very frustrating to miss your final pint because of unclear closing times. This happened to me in the Vernon in Liverpool a few years ago. They said they'd closed the bar early without any warning because they didn't think anyone else wanted a drink. Psychic bar staff! Fortunately the pub has better management now.

As you say, Dave, give people information. It eases a lot of situations, not just in pubs, as I know from working in a job that had a lot of dealing with the public.

Neil, Eating isn't Cheating said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neil, Eating isn't Cheating said...

(comment sans all my spelling mistakes)

Nice post.

Got me thinking about the pub I spent christmas eve in this year. It had a central bar that served three different rooms, and as such the barmaids couldnt always see who was waiting (only two of them working). The locals had developed the habit of ringing the last orders bell hanging to the side of the bar to grab the attention of the barmaids. Which is fair enough as long as the bar staff are ok with it.

The problem came when (after a fair few drinks) I didn't know this and constantly thought it was last orders. I ran to the bar for 'just one more' three times before I realised what was going on!

Cooking Lager said...

"Upset drunks is the alternative" Drunk people in pubs? Doesn't sound controlled and responsible to me?

Jeff Pickthall said...

"My patient puppy dog look". Yeah right. Oh my aching ribs!