I was in a Dublin kebab shop recently, when I heard the Arabic proprietor take a quick phone call in French. When he was done, I asked him, in French, how long he’d worked there. Josef and I chatted for 20 minutes. When I left, he implored me to stop in the next time I’m in Dublin. And I think I will.
For those of us who spend an inordinate amount of time on the road, the importance of these oases of familiarity cannot be understated. Maintaining relationships in a city you visit regularly can take work, but the reward is a far-flung personal connection that adds significantly more to your social and emotional well being than any status bump at a hotel. And pulling it off is easier than you think.
Make yourself known
Whether you’re in a café, a bar, a restaurant or a clothing store, the rules remain the same. You need to mark yourself out, however slightly, from the crowd. For instance, if you find you’re regularly visiting a coffee shop that shows pride in its beans, take a few minutes to chat with the owner about his product. On my second visit to Seattle Coffee Works, I asked the barista whether he thought their Ethiopian Yergecheffe beans’ citrus flavours would be brought out better by a pour-over or a siphon. It worked. When I returned a week later, the barista waved when I walked in and we had some good coffee talk.
Go off menu
Once you’ve been back a few times and learned enough about the place that you don’t seem like a jerk doing so, order off-menu. At a San Antonio bar called Esquire not long ago, having figured out that the bartender took his mixing very seriously, I asked him if he could do any flips or fizzes. He cocked an eyebrow: “Dude, we have creme de violette, but here’s this rose tincture I made myself,” he said. “Tell me what you think.” The last time I went in, I sat at a table with friends and the barman—Jeret was his name—came over to tell me he had this new drink he thought I’d like.
Seal the deal
Now that you’ve got a spot where you can bank on a genuine smile and a name-check when you arrive, here’s how to ensure that you’re greeted like a long lost cousin: bring a gift. Seriously. Ideally, it would be nothing more valuable than a few dollars, and best if it were related to a conversation you’ve had: a souvenir from your hometown, perhaps, or a trinket from your travels. A waiter once mentioned to me that he liked Nick Hornby. When I ended up interviewing the author, I had him sign a copy of his about-to-be-published book for the waiter.
If that gift is received in the spirit it was intended—and it was—congratulations, you’re part of their family of regulars. If they balk or refuse the gift, you could retrace your steps and reboot. Or find a new spot. You are, after all, just passing through.