Working service in a bar - or hosting a party for that matter - is like painting a room: if you prepare properly, all you have to do is roll out the paint. If you're like me, choosing the food and drinks is likely the first thing that crosses your mind, but the people you round up and the atmosphere you gather them in can make it the stuff of legend.
I'm a sucker for stationery, but don't let your handwriting stop you from sending out an invite including your address, phone number, the start time and end time (if you succeed, no one will want to leave), dress code and any requests for party favours. Your invitation should be clear on whether you're serving dinner or just drinks so people know whether to eat beforehand.
It's not all arts and crafts. Assembling the right mix of people is the most important task by a long shot. Don't get me wrong: all of your friends are fun. But that doesn't mean they'll get along in every situation and combination. You'll only be able to engage a few people at a time during your party, so point out commonalities when you introduce guests to each other and circle back to make sure you've made the right match.
The first thing a seasoned bar operator does when they walk into their bar is dim the lights, check the thermostat and adjust the volume of the music. You can do the same in your home, with the music put into playlists arranged by tempo and type. You can DJ or bartend your party, but you can't do both - or either successfully on the fly - so make your mixes beforehand.
You're probably wondering when the "mixologist" is going to tell you which cocktails to serve at your party. But that really comes down to who you've invited over and why you've chosen to have the party in the first place. The best part about serving cocktails over just wine and beer is that their ingredients and fanciful names present the opportunity to tell a story - the occasion for the party - with you as the author.
Choose recipes from a book such as (brace yourself for the shameless plug) the brand-new Meehan's Bartender Manual that reaffirm the occasion for your get-together. That could be a Champagne Cocktail to celebrate an engagement, a Moscow Mule for your American presidential impeachment party, or a Manhattan when a colleague makes the move to New York City. Resist the urge to trot out recipes you've been "working on"and stick to one or two drinks you think your guests will dig. Less is more.
When I have friends over, I keep plenty of beer in the fridge and offer a red, white or pink wine that pairs well with the snacks I'm serving, but I'll also prepare a punch (the Green Tea Punch in the book - rum, sencha and mint tea and lime - is a great example) and set it as far away as possible from where I'm making the rest of the drinks. Think of the punch bowl as a satellite bar in your club.
Only the intrepid will request a cocktail from you if you've already given them other options. But don't let inexperience dissuade you from giving them a go; the gesture makes up for any imperfection in your work. I offer to open wine or spirits brought as host gifts, but even as a pro, I avoid attempting to make any drinks with them unless I know them well and have the right mixers to pull it off. Save R&D for another night.
Lastly, don't forget to make water available to your guests and keep an eye on everyone's alcohol intake. A good bartender makes it tempting to overindulge; a great bartender will always stop you one drink before you regret it.
Jim Meehan's book, Meehan's Bartender Manual (Ten Speed Press, hbk, $69.99), is on sale now.