Philadelphia and the Countryside - Press Room

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Oct 30 2006

Brown Bagging Is Chic At Philadelphia's 200+ Bring-Your-Own-Bottle Restaurants

BYOB Boom In Philly Makes City A Hotspot For These Cozy Culinary Wonders

Soon the bring-your-own-bottle (BYOB) restaurant will be as synonymous with Philadelphia as the cheesesteak, the soft pretzel and Rocky. Typically cozy, family-run, laid-back, inexpensive—and all about the food—BYOBs can be found around most every corner of Center City and tucked down country roads (at last count, more than 200).

In recent years, the BYOB scene has gone beyond mom-and-pop joints to include haute international bistros, funky casual spots and authentic ethnic eateries. And these days, patrons are toting more than just bottles of wine; they’re bringing tequila, vodka or whatever other spirit they prefer. The prevalence of BYOBs is so great in the region that the Zagat Survey of Philadelphia restaurants is one of the only such city guides to contain a separate listing for “BYO.”

Why BYOB?:
Historians have yet to come up with the name of the region’s very first BYOB, but modern restaurant experts agree the phenomenon developed as a result of Pennsylvania’s strict liquor laws and high liquor taxation. When start-up restaurants choose to forgo the expenses of owning a liquor license, they lower their initial overhead, which lets them keep menu prices lower, which, in turn, attracts a wider range of clientele. Today, the spirit of the BYOB celebrates this level of freedom and casualness. Like the brasserie, the café and the gastropub, the BYOB has evolved into its own genre, and consumers like being in charge. At a BYOB, diners get to drink exactly what they want to drink, without draining the budget and without sacrificing quality.

BYOB Etiquette:
Thankfully, very few BYOBs stand for fussy manners. Most permit jeans. Brown-bagging Chardonnay is universally accepted, as is substituting wine for beer. Still, there are a few ground rules. Number one: Learn reservations policies. For example: Rittenhouse Square’s popular and cute Audrey Claire accepts reservations every night except Friday and Saturday. Queen Village’s noisy and fun Greek seafood mecca Dmitri’s won’t take reservations, but the hostess is glad to search the bar across the street to find patrons on the waiting list. West Philadelphia’s Marigold Kitchen, housed in a beautiful old brownstone and serving impeccably nouveau American fare, gently advises diners to call a few weeks in advance to reserve a table. Number two: Most BYOBs will not ask you to open your own bottle. Number three: Many BYOBs are cash only.

Italian BYOBs:
By far the most prevalent BYOBs serve Italian fare. These trattorias first came into popularity in the once predominantly Italian-American South Philadelphia neighborhood, where red tomato sauce is called “gravy.” In South Philly, not-to-be-missed Italian BYOBs include Franco’s High Note Cafe, where servers deliver osso bucco and sing opera; Tre Scalini, a decorative throwback to the 1970s that’s famous for black squid ink pasta; and Mr. Martino’s, with the romantic vibe of an old speakeasy, homey white bean soup and baked ricotta with broccoli rabe. Among the dozens of Italian BYOBs in Center City, buzz-makers include handsome and hip Mercato, for Tuscan salads and mojo short ribs; chic Melograno, with long, worthwhile waits for fig-stuffed quail and beet and mascarpone ravioli; and Ernesto’s 1521 Café, for amazing vegetable Napoleons and arguably the city’s best tiramisu.

A Family Affair:
Second in prevalence to Italian BYOBs are couple-run operations. Philadelphia swarms with happily committed duos who work together to make their restaurants happen. At Old City’s homey Chloe, Mary Ann Ferrie and Dan Grimes share time behind the line, making fig flatbreads for patrons. Deep in South Philly, Kathy and Davide Faenza are, respectively, pastry chef and chef at L’Angolo, a charming gem for straightforward Gallipoli-inspired fare. Catherine and David Ansill also share kitchen duties at the Italian Market’s Pif, a wee, curtained spot for no-holds-barred French brasserie cooking (think escargots and organs). Phoenixville’s contemporarily lush Majolica is owner-operated by wife and hubby team Sarah Johnson (manager) and Andrew Deery (chef). In Chinatown, there’s a double-couple: classic Cantonese Lee How Fook—home of the city’s best oyster hot pot—was founded by Doris and Shing Chung, and is now run by their daughter and son-in-law Sieu and Andrew Nguyen.

Countryside Connections:
Bring-you-own-bottle restaurants extend far beyond city limits. Even city dwellers have been known to make the drive for meals at spots like Chester County’s Birchrunville Store Café, a spot for fine dining on chef-owner Francis Trzeciak’s goat cheese soufflé and croissant bread pudding. Four-star chef Alison Barshak practically runs a fan club at her pretty Alison at Blue Bell in bucolic Montgomery County, where she specializes in fresh fish and hugs for customers. Former Le Bec-Fin chef Peter Gilmore runs Gilmore’s, a haute family operation in an elegant West Chester townhouse. Farther into the historic Brandywine Valley, contemporary and popular Sovana Bistro uses local ingredients—especially Kennett Square’s famous mushrooms—in its approachable modern cuisine. Northeast of the city, vegetarians flock to Blue Sage Grille for serious meat-free, California-inspired eats.

Spirited BYOBs:
Those who’d rather mix instead of swirl, sniff and quaff can still enjoy libations at BYOBs catering to non-wine drinkers. Lolita, a hip and happening Center City spot for inventive Mexican cuisine, serves fresh juices in chic pitchers to patrons wishing to mix in their own tequila for margaritas. Both the Jamaican Jerk Hut (South Street) and Geechee Girl Rice Café (Germantown) offer homemade ginger beer that mixes with rum and lime to make island-inspired dark ‘n’ stormies. Down-home joints like Sweet Lucy’s Smokehouse (for the best barbecue in town) and Tacconelli’s Pizzeria (where devoted customers reserve their pizza dough in advance) are perfect for toting along a six-pack of locally brewed Yards beer. Bryn Mawr’s Café Fresko and Lourdas Greek Taverna serve Greek specialties like souvlaki, rack of lamb and Greek-style fish that practically cry out for ouzo.

Other Restaurants Catching onto the BYOB Craze:
As the popularity of BYOBs continues to increase, restaurants with liquor licenses have relaxed their policies for patrons wishing to bring their own libations. On Sunday night at Restaurant Row’s contemporary French Brasserie Perrier, diners can BYOB with no corkage fee. Sunday is also BYOB night at Ambler’s Bridget 8 West. In Northern Liberties, at the pretty Napa-inspired Italian bistro Sovalo, patrons may BYOB for free on Monday nights. On Wednesday night at Old City’s sleek, slow-food emporium Farmicia, diners can bring along the liquid refreshments of their choosing.

The Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation (GPTMC) makes Philadelphia and The Countryside™ a premier destination through marketing and image building that increases business and promotes the region’s vitality. For more information about travel to Philadelphia, visit www.gophila.com or call the Independence Visitor Center, located in Independence National Historical Park, at (800) 537-7676.

 

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