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NYC Restaurants Still Treat Sober People Like Garbage, And It Needs to Stop

Places are getting better, but there’s still a long way to go

cocktail Maksym Fesenko/Shutterstock

Last year, I went to a Chelsea restaurant for a pre-theater meal. I chose the venue because it was near the show — but moreso because it had an extensive list of mocktails. When I got there, I eagerly ordered a drink with hibiscus and lemon in it.

To my disbelief, the bartender rolled his eyes, dropped his shaker, and muttered to a colleague: “All these fucking people ordering mocktails.” He then stormed to the back of the bar, leaving his colleague to handle it. She did, professionally. I was visibly pregnant and pissed, but I was also shocked at how embarrassed the guy made me feel about being sober.

New York is slowly crawling away from binge-drinking culture toward wellness and mindfulness. More and more restaurants are offering smart non-alcoholic beverages, and some bars are even opening without any booze at all. But despite this, I’ve found that many establishments still aren’t on board.

When I was no longer pregnant, I didn’t have the obvious excuse to stay sober — but I got sober anyway. After a long, fun, but mostly shameful career of drinking in NYC, I’m in recovery now. Though a lot has changed since then, I still love going to restaurants and meeting friends at bars. The shame that restaurant staff can imbue only deepened once my sobriety became voluntary.

Most New York restaurants don’t know how to treat sober people. Establishments that tout their cocktail prowess don’t train bartenders on simple non-alcoholic drinks. Servers talk to diners with the assumption that they’re about to get boozy, spouting comments that can easily trigger a recovering alcoholic. The Chelsea bartender’s attitude is not uncommon — and it’s a detriment to a more inclusive dining culture in this city, where more than 1,700 New Yorkers die of alcohol-related causes every year.

One might assume that a professional bartender knows how to make a mixed drink without booze, but this is not necessarily the case. Author John deBary, former bar director at Momofuku, says mocktails can be more difficult for untrained staffers because they can’t use alcohol as a crutch. Vodka or bourbon make for handy baselines in a recipe, whereas a good mocktail takes more ingenuity with ingredients like tonic water, ginger, and muddled fruits.

I get that, and I don’t expect the average dive bar to make a solid mocktail. But when I went to an esteemed Brooklyn restaurant a few weeks ago, I assumed that their pedigreed bartenders would know how to handle the request. Instead, non-alcoholic beer O’Douls was the only option listed; when I asked for a virgin drink, I was met with total confusion. The bartender ultimately sent me a horrible acidic concoction, his non-boozy version of a French 75.

Even worse, though, is when the restaurant’s approach to hospitality assumes that diners are there to get drunk. At a Brooklyn bistro recently, a server yelled to a group of my mom friends during brunch: “It’s mom’s day out! Bring on the mimosas! Wooo!”

Mom booze culture in itself is toxic — I consider it a silly social media sheen to hide the pain of motherhood — but more than that, you never know what customers are going through. Shout-outs like this, though well-meaning, may cut particularly deep for people who, say, have blacked out while watching their infant, and, say, want to jump out of a window every time they think about it.

People in recovery are sensitive flowers. While we definitely need to get our own shit together and get our confidence back, restaurant management needs to make it a priority not to assume that patrons (or staff, for that matter) are looking to get hammered. Sometimes we just want to hang out with our colleagues, or eat something awesome, or show off a local haunt to our tourist friends, or we want to go somewhere that will make us feel warm, fuzzy, and pampered. Or whatever else that Cheers song says.

Even if a restaurateur isn’t concerned about the ethics of being hospitable to a variety of diners, not having mocktails is just bad business. Restaurants could make at least $8 off of me with some ginger-blackberry syrup lemon concoction, but I sometimes wind up getting water instead.

As restaurants get better about welcoming all sorts of diners, and as it becomes less of a badge of honor to be able to knock back five whiskeys in an hour, the hospitality industry needs not only to evolve, but to lead the charge. Restaurants are where all the action happens, where all the triggers arise, and where people are quietly suffering. Let’s support each other, even from behind the bar.

Halley Bondy is a freelance writer and author based in Brooklyn. She has written for NBC News, Paste, Vice, The Outline, and more.