What It’s Like Bartending the Night Before Thanksgiving
An oral history of the busiest bar night of the year.
Pop quiz: what is the biggest drinking night of the year?
If you’ve ever worked in a bar, you know the answer... and might be having traumatic flashbacks even thinking about it. (Sorry!)
The night before Thanksgiving — known variously as Black Wednesday, Blackout Wednesday, Drunksgiving, Drinksgiving, or simply Thanksgiving Eve — is the annual ritual in which young people, like salmon, return to their ancestral waters to gather with the friends they haven’t seen in a while. Specifically, to get hammered. (Please, everyone, drink responsibly.)
As the unofficial holiday by and for college kids, the night before Thanksgiving has become the booziest night on the calendar. In 2019, bars moved 173% more shots that day than the prior Wednesday night. Only New Year’s Eve and St. Patrick’s day can even compare.
The name of the holiday itself attests to the bibulous nature of the occasion, transitioning from Black Wednesday in years past — maybe an innocent counterpart to Black Friday, Mom? — to the currently trendy name, Blackout Wednesday.
Source: Google Trends
Whatever you call it in your hometown, the night before Thanksgiving is a banner event for the bar industry. BentoBox wanted to hear from the people who’ve truly seen it all: bartenders who have worked the night before Thanksgiving.
Here, in their own words, are bartenders from different parts of the American sprawl — one rural, one suburban, and one in New York City — on how they’ve experienced the year’s biggest night of drinking.
I’m from a small town in Iowa. As a high schooler, you either got to pick retail or food. I picked food.
I worked Blackout Wednesdays from age 19 to 21. I think it’s a bigger holiday than Black Friday at this point. At least where I’m from, you really don’t have anything to do the next day. It’s a good night to go out.
Growing up, the vibe for a lot of my peers was like, We need to get out of here. During the holidays, a lot of people who left to live somewhere else return to visit their families. My first year bartending, I didn’t expect the influx of people I was going to see. I knew it would be busy, but I didn’t make the connection that it would be a bunch of people from my past life.
It’s a day of people seeing each other for the first time in a long time. Sizing each other up. Maybe talking to someone they wouldn’t have previously spoken to. Those were always the most interesting interactions for me to watch, and to have myself — people who were showing up completely differently than I had known them. You see things like the former anime girl who arrives fully having come into her own, talking with the former jock football star who clearly already peaked.
The most fun I had was when I got to bartend with someone who was also familiar with these people. Because the whole night, in passing, you’re giving little updates, telling your stories about these people. And then of course it’s like, “Did you see them in the corner? They just went into the bathroom together! They never talked to each other before in their lives!”
The theme of the day is really, not just getting together with people you used to know, but meeting people you used to know. And then, obviously, getting sloppy. There’s always the overtone of, I don’t know if I’m ever going to see these people again. People cut loose. I think everyone always had a good time, me included.
Cedar Grove, NJ
If you talk to people who work in high-end restaurants, the night before Thanksgiving is just a total moneymaker thanks to people who don’t want to cook. And if you’re working in a lower-end restaurant, that’s more heavy in the bar, it’s also a total moneymaker. Basically for any kind of business, the night before Thanksgiving should be a slam dunk.
One story that’s always been funny to me happened in the town I grew up in. The town had one restaurant and one bar. I worked in the restaurant.
We used to get a mix of people for sit-down dinner, but on Fridays, we would get a regular crew who would basically treat the place like a sports bar. These guys were in their late 20s, early 30s. Super nice, always tipped well.
One Thanksgiving Eve the regular crew came in with a few new people. These were friends of theirs in town for the holiday. I learned they’d all gone to dinner separately, with their respective families, and met up at my place. I think I opened 150 Bud Light bottles that night. Eventually my boss is like, “This is a restaurant, not a bar. Last call!” So they went to the bar down the street, and after my shift I joined them.
I always think it’s funny that I saw them at three levels of drunkenness: wine-buzzed from family dinner, then drunk off of Bud Light, then on a completely different level after doing shots. All these people who grew up in the town and left, got good jobs, and returned — reverting to form with each other, like they found a time machine to be stupid teenagers again. That, to me, is the spirit of Thanksgiving Eve.
I’ve bartended Thanksgiving Eve at two places in the city: a fine dining restaurant in Manhattan and Grand Army Bar here in Boerum Hill. The vibes couldn’t have been more different.
At the restaurant, it felt predominantly like people who weren’t going home for Thanksgiving. A lot of solo guests having dinner alone for 45 minutes and then leaving. Not necessarily the most upbeat. A lot of expats and, like, divorced dads, I would say.
Patty Dennison (standing) reporting for duty. Photo: Brad Thomas Parsons
At the bar, it’s a mix of people who live in the neighborhood who are staying here for Thanksgiving, or people who are visiting their parents. And everybody is just getting f--ed up. It gets packed. The last two years we’ve gotten an ice luge; I went in last year and the only thing I did was pour shots down the ice luge.
People are in a relatively good mood. Even if they’re, you know, not super thrilled about whatever is happening at home, the vibe seems like people are just happy to be with the homies. You're only going to see your childhood friends so much, right? So the night before Thanksgiving is maybe the one opportunity, when you're home for that period of time. So it does seem like a lot of people getting together and hanging out.
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