What Is A Bar Tab? (Explained)

what is a bar tab
Joe | Last Updated: May 23, 2023
I'm Joe, a veteran bartender with over a decade in the industry and a burning passion for mixing drinks.

If you’re someone that likes to unwind by visiting your local bar at the weekend then you’ve likely heard the term “bar tab” being thrown around, but perhaps you’re quite not sure what it means or how it works.

If you’re tired of feeling like a fish out of water when it comes to bar tabs, you’re not alone.

Maybe you’ve even found yourself nervously asking the bartender, what is a bar tab, and how do they work?

Don’t worry, bar tabs can often be confusing, and if you’ve never heard of the term and are unfamiliar with how they work then turning the bar tab down may seem like a wise decision.

But a bar tab can actually be very beneficial to customers for a number of reasons, which is why in this post, we’re going to go through everything you need to know about bar tabs, from how they work, to the benefits, and everything in between.

So the next time the bartender asks you if you would like to set up a bar tab, you’ll be well-informed and know how to manage your bar tab like a pro.

So let’s cut to the chase.

What Is A Bar Tab?

A bar tab, also known as an open tab or running tab, is a running total of charges that a guest accumulates throughout their time at a bar.

It’s a way for customers to order drinks and food at the bar without having to pay for each item individually, making the order process quick and efficient.

The bartender will keep a record of the items ordered and charge the customer for everything at once before you leave the establishment and settle the bar tab.

what is a bar tab
Photo by Patrick Tomasso

This allows the customer to quickly and efficiently order drinks without the need for constant payment, speeding up the order process for both the bartender and the customer.

Bar tabs are perfect for drinking in large groups or when ordering drinks frequently, it’s a hassle-free way of being served without the need to pay for each item individually.

How Does A Bar Tab Work?

In most cases, opening a bar tab will require you to provide some form of identification as well as a credit card, debit card, or cash deposit, depending on the bar’s policy.

Bar tabs are not offered in every establishment, and those that do may have different ways of operating to ensure the tab gets settled at the end of the night.

In some bars, it’s only regular and trusted customers that get offered to open a tab, as the customer may have built a history with the bar and is therefore trusted to settle the tab.

Once the guest has left a deposit of some sort, the tab is open and drinks can be ordered as they normally would but without the hindrance of paying every single time.

It’s crucial to keep track of the items you’ve ordered and not let the tab get out of hand, as you may be left with a frightening bill at the end of the night in order to settle the tab.

The number of times I’ve seen customers set up a bar tab and get too drunk to remember what they’ve ordered is mindblowing.

Then they’re left with a shock when it’s time to pay the bill, so keeping a mental note or asking the bartender for a printout each time you order is a wise move.

When the night ends and it’s time to go home, simply ask the bartender to close your tab and prepare to settle the total amount owed.

The bartender will ask how you would like to pay and likely use the card or cash you’ve left as a deposit to settle the bill.

Remember to tip the bartender when you’re closing the bar tab, not everyone has the luxury of opening bar tabs so it’s important to show your appreciation by leaving a generous tip.

The Benefits Of A Bar Tab

There are many benefits to opening a bar tab for both the customer and bartender, but the most favorable is the convenience of not having to pay each time an order is placed.

Having to stand at the bar, wait for your drink to be served, then reach for your card and wait for the bartender to grab the card machine is an inconvenience that can be done without.

If the bar’s WiFi is slow this can drag out the process and interrupt the flow of the night, so opening a bar tab makes more sense for those looking to be served quickly and get back to enjoying their night.

Bartenders often provide better service to guests that have tabs open as it’s a quick and easy way to reduce the build-up of customers at the bar.

As a bartender myself, I would often look to serve those with bar tabs open before regular customers as they were usually trusted customers and I could serve them much faster than those making a payment each time an order is placed.

what is a bar tab
Photo by Sérgio Alves Santos

Another benefit of opening a bar tab is that guests don’t need to worry about carrying cash or losing their cards during the night.

The bartender will keep the card safe and sound behind the bar until the tab is ready to be settled, which can offer peace of mind to customers.

As a whole, there are many benefits to opening a bar tab that makes both the bartender’s and guests’ night much more efficient.

Do All Bars Offer A Tab?

No, not all bars will offer the option of opening a tab. Smaller establishments that don’t have the staff or policies in place to manage bar tabs may require payment immediately.

Some bars may require a minimum purchase amount to open a bar tab, which could vary depending on the bar and where it’s located geographically.

City bars that are more on the luxurious side and have plenty of staff may offer bar tabs, whilst quieter bars with less footfall likely don’t offer this option.

It’s best to check with the bartender upon entering the bar if they offer bar tabs before ordering drinks or food.

How Do I Open A Bar Tab?

To open a bar tab there are some simple steps that should be followed to ensure it’s done correctly and appropriately.

First, approach the bar and politely ask the bartender if the establishment is open to offering bar tabs for guests, they may ask for identification or your age at this point.

Once the ID has been confirmed, the bartender will usually ask for a payment deposit which can be in the form of cash or a credit/debit card.

The bartender will then advise you that the bar tab is open, and you can begin ordering and enjoying your night without the hassle of paying every time you place an order.

It’s a quick and easy process, with bar tabs being set up for guests in a matter of minutes to ensure maximum efficiency within the bar.

What Happens If You Forget To Close Your Bar Tab?

Forgetting to close and settle bar tabs is a common occurrence as after a few drinks it’s easy to forget the tab was opened and the bar staff may be too busy to remind you when you’re leaving.

If you forget to close a bar tab, the bar will likely hold onto your credit card or other forms of deposit until you settle the unpaid balance.

Depending on the bar’s policy, they may also charge a fee for paying the tab late which can be an additional 10% in some establishments.

Large bars may not have an issue with customers forgetting to close their tabs, but in smaller establishments, it can mean that they don’t offer you a bar tab the next time you enter for a drink.

what is a bar tab
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo

If the bartender suspects you’ve tried to pull a fast one, or you don’t return to the bar to settle the balance, they may ban you from entering the bar again, but this is rare and doesn’t happen often.

Always be mindful if you have a bar tab opened and be sure to settle it before leaving the bar.

Accidents do happen but sometimes it can make the bar lose trust in you and they may not be so keen on allowing you to open a bar tab next time.

Wrapping Up

To sum up, bar tabs are a way for guests to order drinks and food at the bar without the need for payment every time an order is placed.

It’s a quick and efficient way to order that keeps the flow of the night going for customers and also saves the bartender time by not having to wait for their payment processors or exchange cash.

Not all establishments offer the option for a bar tab, and sometimes it’s only trusted customers or regulars can open bar tabs, especially in smaller local bars.

Bar tabs are awesome, and if you want to have a quick and painless night of fun with your friends, I encourage you to open a tab.

Just remember to pay the tab at the end of the night and leave the bartender a generous tip.