Is Our Social Media Obsession Ruining the Bar Experience?

11 of L.A.’s best bartenders weigh in

Back in the “good, old days” (aka before the smartphone) bars used to be a community space where groups of friends met up and where singles mingled. People actually studied up on body language before going to bars so they would be able to tell if someone was receptive to them. This was also where you went to be alone for a little bit to contemplate with a drink. And if you were lucky, everyone there even knew your name.

But that social landscape is fast becoming a relic thanks to the mass addiction to smartphones and social media. In today’s bars the main source of light isn’t from candles but smartphones. A quiet drink alone is now a time for catching up on emails or Facebook. That glow from the smartphone has inadvertently become a wall signaling others you want to be left alone, whether that really is the case or not.

Saints & Sinners, circa 2006
Saints & Sinners, circa 2006

Photograph by Caroline on Crack

For those who remember what bars were like before the iPhone, this is all a bit sad. But for those who embrace social media, it’s a way of sharing an experience with not just those in the bar but with friends online.

And a lot of watering holes are beginning to welcome smartphones because of that. Places like Far Bar in Little Tokyo encourage you to tag them when sharing. Westbound in downtown built a shelf under its bar ledge equipped with a USB port for guests to charge their phones. Plus we can thank social media for all those photogenic and elaborate cocktail presentations.

But how does your local bartender feel about it? I asked them for their thoughts on the smartphone invasion. Opinions varied from “hooray, for free publicity” to “it’s sad.”

Aaron Polsky, Harvard & Stone: “We’re not at all bothered by our guests using social media and/or their phones at our bar. We think that it provides yet another avenue in which to connect to people and facilitates meeting friends and spreading positivity and community.”

Eugene Lee, Big Bar: “We live in the age we live in. There is no going backwards. Whatever the customers habits are – that’s their business, they are not here to make our night fun and eventful, we are here for them. If people want to take a photo of their cocktail we just made them, we see it as an opportunity to engage them on what it is – even as we gently remind them it is slowly depreciating. If they share it on socials, cool – if they tag us cool, if they feel more connected to the bar because of socials – cool. If the bar is glowing with the faces of people on their phone, then some of us try to be helpful or engage – but it really is up to the guest.”

A spot to charge your phone.
Westbound has a spot to charge your phone.

Photograph by Caroline on Crack

Cody Summers, SMYC: “It takes a salty group of bartenders to complain about social media being the issue if their bar clientele is routinely sitting at their pine silent and awash in the glow of their cell phones. Clearly the issue is your bar. Plus, who takes offense to a quiet, well-tipping patron who is reading a novel or the New Yorker on their phone? These are some of my favorite guests! It means that they see your establishment as a comfortable, cozy place to relax and do whatever the hell they want. Give me 15 of those people on my stools over two loud mouths bemoaning my lack of Jagermeister any day of the week.”

Brynn Smith, Sotto: “It’s not really that much of an issue at Sotto, which is actually kinda cool to think about! People are always asking what I am doing and are engaged with the process of my drink making and my stories. Usually, if they take out their phone they’re snapping a pic for Instagram, and I say ‘tag @bartendingpretty.'”

Christine Wiseman, Break Room 86: “Speaking from only being behind the bar at Break Room. I do not think social media is hurting the bar experience here. If anything I think it enhances it and brings us more business! From our guests taking pictures of how much fun they are having here to taking pictures of the bright and lit up cocktails, they are advertising for us! There is no lack of a good time here!”

Karen Grill, Pacific Seas at Clifton’s: “Here’s the thing, all I need is a few minutes of your time. If you want to be on your phone all night instead of socializing, that’s your decision. All I require is that when you ask me for your cocktail or ask to close out, you’re not looking down at the phone while you do. Eye contact is a sign of respect. It’s all I ask for.”

You can thank social media for making cocktail presentations more elaborate.
You can thank social media for making cocktail presentations more elaborate.

Photograph by Caroline on Crack

Gabriella Mlynarczyk, Birch: “It breaks that connection you’re making with the person in front of you and makes them feel unimportant. Then there are dating apps that people get sucked into instead of raising their heads and maybe seeing love right in front of them. Really when it comes down to it, I don’t see the point of going out with friends to bars if all you’re doing is gluing your face to a phone screen and not talking to anyone. You might as well stay at home on the couch and save your money.”

Ryan Wainwright, Terrine and Viviane: “The bar used to be the haven for social abnormality. It used to be the den of intermingling. Now it is like when you go to the men’s room and the urinals don’t have dividers. People are creeps for wanting to strike up a conversation and ‘dear God I didn’t ask for you opinion, person I don’t know.’ Isolation is our life. Get into our metal boxes and curse out other boxes for driving like crap. We work in boxes with the same people. And over and over. What happened to people reaching out and having a new conversation? It was the best part of my job. The connections.”

Erik Lund, Alexander’s Steakhouse: “Honestly, I would say that it just helps identify boring people. ‘Oh that guy is glued to his phone, probably tweeting about the awesome time he’s having, while not seeming to really be enjoying himself…’ ‘Hmmm, that girl hasn’t taken her nose out of her phone since I got here…’ etc. The 0-5% of people meeting new people and having meaningful interactions is probably the same, but now we can easily spot the majority of people that are a waste of time. So ‘thank you, social media’?”

David Allee, La Descarga: “I totally agree that social media is ruining bars. During our shows, instead of people watching it and enjoying, they’re more focused on taking pictures or video. Then making sure it gets up on some social media. By the time they get a picture they like and get it uploaded the show is over. They’re looking at Yelp for cocktails not the menu, and they’re uploading pictures of them dancing instead of actually dancing. On weekends the flashes are the light show. It’s like we have a disco ball of social media.”

Cari Hah, Big Bar: “I know that social media is a very powerful tool for bars/brands/people but sometimes I wish people would put their phones down and engage in the actual moment. I feel like we miss out on a lot of actual experience and real relationship building because of social media. I feel sad when I go out and I see a group of friends, family or couples not interacting with each other and all on their phones.”