The first place I ever thought of as my "friendly neighborhood bar and grill" was called the Crossroads.

It was a venerable (a nice word for really old) joint in Boston's Back Bay, not far from my college dorm. You walked down some stairs and opened the door into a dark world of beer smells, a cloud of smoke and Christmas lights that were up year-round. Beer and whiskey (neat or on the rocks) were the drinks of choice. If you asked for something fancier, you risked a death stare from Jeff and Tony, the bartenders.

But the regulars, who ranged from students and professors to police officers and cabdrivers coming off shift, were a good bunch. If you wanted to chat about the Red Sox or Boston politics, someone was always willing. If you just wanted to sit and contemplate your drink, everyone respected that.

Our Our Say columnist says a bar can be more than just a place to have a drink -- if you follow some rules.
Our Our Say columnist says a bar can be more than just a place to have a drink -- if you follow some rules. (Charlie McCollum)

Since the Crossroads, I've always had a friendly neighborhood bar and grill to call a home away from home. When I moved across the river from Boston to Cambridge, Mass., it was Jack's, where you could hear local musicians such as Bonnie Raitt for the price of a beer. In Washington, it was Jenkins Hill, which was home to members of Congress, reporters and Supreme Court justices. When I lived in Palo Alto, it was Henry's on University Avenue and Talbott's on California Avenue (both are now gone).

In San Jose, there has been a string of places -- perhaps most memorably, the late, much-beloved Bini's on Taylor Street, made semifamous in the columns of then-Mercury News columnist Steve Lopez, now with the Los Angeles Times.


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This little walk down the memory lane of watering holes was brought on by "Drinking With Men," a fascinating, if flawed, memoir by Rosie Schaap, the Drink columnist for The New York Times Magazine. She estimates that she has spent 13,000 hours in bars ranging from roadhouses in rural Vermont to literary hangouts in Manhattan.

In her book, Schaap dodges getting too personal about the whys of her boozy existence. But she does paint vivid portraits of the bars and their regulars; along the way, she manages to lay out what makes a joint work as a place where "everybody knows your name." And she sprinkles in some rules about bar etiquette.

"At the bar you don't so much unload your (stuff) as set it aside," she writes at one point. "You keep the conversation light; wit is welcome, humor even more valued, but nothing too deep, nothing too serious."

That's a start, but there are some other rules for the watering hole. I think I can weigh in on the topic not just because I have put in my time on a bar stool, but because, back in the day, I spent some time on the other side of the bar as a bartender and barback, including a stint at the Crossroads. The things to keep in mind:

  • If you're new to a place, be polite and low-key. Don't assume you're such a swell person that you'll fit right in. It might be your kind of place -- or it might not.

  • Once you become a regular, don't treat first-timers like strange aliens from another planet intruding on your turf. Be pleasant, and if there's an opening, extend a greeting. I've met some fascinating people who will never be regulars but gave great conversation for an hour or so.

  • If you're a guy, don't hit on the female regulars. Mild flirting can be OK, but a good bar is a place where both sexes feel comfortable. The same rule applies to the staff.

  • You may think of the bartenders, the barbacks and the wait staff as your good buddies. Just remember, though, that this is their job. If they are swamped, don't be offended if they can't engage in sparkling repartee. Don't assume if you're a regular that the three drinks for the price of two rule is absolute. Many bar owners are fine with that; others are not.

  • A related rule: Working in a bar is how these folks make their living, and most of that living comes from tips. The silliest tipping rule I ever heard was that $1 per drink is fine. Seriously? Start at 20 percent, and go up from there. If they do something special -- like ring you up for a couple of drinks before happy hour ends so you can get the less expensive rate -- be even more generous.

  • Even the regulars have an off night. If someone clearly wants to be alone, move along.

  • At the same time -- and this runs contrary to Schaap's view -- be ready to listen and be sympathetic if someone wants to quietly tell you their troubles. It won't happen that often, but you can afford the time. On the other hand, leave the venting at home. Don't go off on public rants. It's a very good way to lose your spot at the bar.

  • Be ready to move on. Bars change in ownership, atmosphere and staff. Don't assume that this will always be your friendly neighborhood bar and grill.

    Follow these rules, and you, too, can find your own version of "Cheers."

    If you run into Norm, say hi for me.

    Follow Charlie McCollum on Twitter at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.