Valentino Longo, head bartender for Four Seasons Hotel at The Surf Club, knows how to break the ice with his customers.

He also knows which topics make for friendly banter keeping drinkers coming back to your bar, and which conversation starters should be swept under the rug. Here are some of his best tips and tricks for maintaining quality conversations with your guests and keeping them engaged, happy, and friendly-sippers.

“Hospitality is why we’re doing this job,” explains Longo. “Everything is built around the happiness of our guests, and the cocktail is always secondary.” For Longo, a “good” bartender understands each guest and can anticipate needs well before he or she even knows what they are. “I start my interaction asking for water preferences, explaining the menu, and bringing a couple of snacks,” says Longo. “I like to leave enough time for the guest to feel comfortable at the bar.” Once Longo senses that the guests have started to settle in a bit, he asks for a drink order.

Valentino Longo Pouring a Cocktail

Valentino Longo Pouring a Cocktail

When he returns with the drink, he engages in friendly banter, asking his go-to conversation starters. “My typical, break-the-ice questions are, ‘Where they come from and if they’ve already had dinner?’” These questions lead the conversation in the direction that Longo is comfortable with the topic. “If they come from a city that I’ve visited or not, I can talk about it with them. If they are interested in dining, I can talk a lot about my favorite places to eat and drink in the area,” explains Longo.

Here are Longo’s tips for keeping your guests engaged and coming back for more

  • Analyze your guests: Always give your guests time to settle in and feel comfortable at the bar. Study him or her and be sure they are willing to have a conversation or not. If not, be an efficient server but keep the small talk to a minimum.
  • Know your audience: Guests that are interested in bartender banter are easy to spot. Keep the conversation light, and be sure to do more listening than talking. Ask questions that will engage the guest and have them talking about themselves instead of vice versa.
  • Don’t overstay your welcome: Once you understand the mood of your guest, gauge how comfortable they are with your company. Do not outstay your welcome.
  • Avoid touchy subject matter: Avoid politics and sports. These types of conversations always end with two different points of view, and you don’t want that.