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The BYOB Restaurant: A Philly Phenomenon
Region Boasts 300-Plus Bring-Your-Own-Bottle Restaurants
Despite decades of popularity and expansion, one quintessential Philadelphia dining phenomenon continues to fly deliciously under the radar. It’s the BYOB, the bring-your-own-bottle restaurant—BYO, for short. Typically independently owned and operated, Philly’s BYOBs number into the three hundreds. Diners find them on dozens of corners in Center City, along avenues of renewed urban neighborhoods and tucked down rural roads. It’s a curious trend with an interesting backstory—and an even more interesting present.
Here’s a short explanation of how the BYOB scene came to be—and advice on navigating the landscape.
What Is A BYOB?:
A BYOB restaurant allows patrons to bring their own wine, spirit or beer of choice to accompany their meals. There are BYOBs where patrons bring precious stock from well-attended wine cellars—or six- packs of light beer. Some restaurants prep their own mixers for spirits: It’s not unusual to see a customer toting along a bottle of tequila to blend with a pitcher of just-pressed mango juice.
There are a few reasons the region is so rich in BYOBs. One is, local liquor licenses can be hard to come by (expensive, time-consuming), especially for restaurateurs just starting out. Another is, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania controls all in-state liquor sales, which means both restaurants and everyday consumers pay the same price for a bottle (or case) of wine. So, area restaurants with liquor licenses often struggle to price alcohol reasonably.
From the consumer’s standpoint, the BYOB evolved from necessity to novelty to all-out phenomenon for more than mere economic reasons. Sure, diners like spending less on merlot and Manhattans, but they also like that at a BYOB, the focus is entirely on the food. The chef, who often owns the place, doesn’t have to deal with operating a bar, in addition to a kitchen.
Bringing-your-own adult beverage to a BYOB isn’t mandatory. But it has been known to enhance many a dining experience. In the past, diners in the region who sought bottles of wine or liquor to bring to a meal made their purchases at Fine Wine & Good Spirits retailers, also known as “state stores,” or at Pennsylvania wineries or distilleries. Beer drinkers could pick up bottles, cans, growlers or six-packs at bottle shops or select bars, buy larger quantities at a beer distributor, or source their suds at a microbrewery. Such stores are still Commonwealth shoppers’ main source for wine, beer and spirits.
But now, because of changes to liquor control laws, more restaurants, grocery and convenience stores, taverns and hotels can sell wine in up to three-liter quantities to go. And beer distributors are permitted to sell beer in smaller quantities. Liquor, however, remains sold exclusively in state stores. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board maintains a list of all venues permitted to sell wine on lcb.pa.gov.
Once you’re set with beverages, you’re set: Very few BYOBs stand for fussy manners—jeans are almost universally welcome, as are both box wine and crystal stemware—but some spots have somewhat quirky reservations policies. Dmitri’s, Queen Village’s intimate and lively Greek seafoodery, doesn’t allow call-ahead reservations, but the hostess is glad to search the bar across the street to find the folks on her waiting list when their table is ready. Rittenhouse Square’s charming Audrey Claire will book tables Sunday through Thursday, but not Friday or Saturday. Veteran vintage South Philly trattoria Mr. Martino’s gladly accepts reservations for the three nights a week it’s open—customers leave their names on an old-fashioned answering machine. Still, newer spots like Passyunk’s acclaimed American bistro Will and Helm, with two chefs and two locations in Kensington and Pennsport, let OpenTable handle their seatings. The Italian Market’s French bistro Bibou tweets out last-minute availability. Then, there’s Kennett Square’s Talula’s Table, whose sole table for 12 books by phone exactly one year in advance, to the numerical date; patrons call in by 7 a.m.
Once they’re in, clientele can leave the uncorking (or unscrewing or uncapping) and pouring to the servers. These restaurants don’t expect diners to bring their own corkscrew. They might, however, expect diners to bring cash. Many BYOBs don’t deal in plastic. Best advice for both experienced and newbie BYOBers: Call ahead to confirm policies.
The aforementioned Greek Dmitri’s, open since 1987, is largely considered to be Philadelphia’s original BYOB. Today, owner Dmitri Chimes operates a second eponymous spot in Northern Liberties. But his original location on the corner of 3rd and Catharine Streets still packs them in for grilled octopus, Greek-style bluefish and addictive hummus. The next big-deal BYOB on the scene was Rittenhouse’s Audrey Claire, owned and operated by Audrey Taichman, who introduced Philly to grilled Romaine salads, fig flatbreads and big decorative bowls of Granny Smith apples back in 1996.
The Millennium brought a quick succession of similarly minded enterprises. In 2000, Old City’s Chlöe, with its pressed flower tabletops and menu spanning baby back ribs to goat-cheese salads, was one of Philly’s first pioneering spots to be helmed by a culinary couple, chefs Mary Ann Ferrie and Dan Grimes, who happily run the hidden gem to this day. Society Hill’s Django, the forerunner of Talula’s Table, opened in 2001 and became the first BYOB to earn the most critical acclaim for its flowerpot-baked bread, seasonal and local menu and carefully curated cheese plates. (Django closed in 2008; original co-owner Aimee Olexy now runs Talula’s Table and non-BYOB Talula’s Garden on Washington Square.)
Still, despite all this early gastronomic diversity, the Philadelphia BYOB was initially most often associated with one cuisine: Italian. BYOB trattorias first dominated once predominantly Italian-American South Philadelphia. In South Philly, not-to-be-missed longstanding Italian BYOBs include Franco’s High Note Cafe, where servers deliver osso bucco and sing opera, and Tre Scalini, where chef-owner Franca DiRenzo is famous for her black squid ink pasta. Among the dozens of Italian BYOBs beyond South Philly, buzz-makers include handsome and hip Mercato, for whole grilled artichoke and short rib ragu; Roman Melograno, for classic branzino and homemade pasta; and Girard Avenue’s feast-worthy Modo Mio, which paved the way for chef-owner Peter McAndrews’ other Italian BYOB Monsú.
A Pair Affair:
Couple-run operations are fairly common among Philly BYOBs. In addition to Chlöe, South Philly’s Tuscan L’Angolo is helmed by a husband-and-wife duo Kathy and Davide Faenza, and East Passyunk’s beloved August belongs to beloveds Maria Vanni and chef MaryAnn Brancaccio. Couple Gianluca Demontis and Rosemarie Tran chef and manage, respectively, both Rittenhouse’s Melograno and Bryn Mawr’s Fraschetta. Chefs Andrew and Kristen Wood helm the farm-centric Italian-French operation Russet. Chef Pierre and manager Charlotte Calmels run the Italian Market’s charming French Bibou. South Street’s wee Pumpkin is the province of chef Ian Moroney and Hillary Bor. Spouses Doris and Shing Chung started Chinatown’s classic Cantonese spot Lee How Fook and soon passed the reigns on to their daughter and son-in-law Sieu and Andrew Nguyen. Married Jose Garces alums Juan Lopez and Mallory Fix Lopez run Point Breeze’s comfort foodery On Point.
Bring-your-own-bottle restaurants extend far beyond city limits. Martha Stewart is a longtime fan of Kennett Square’s one-table hotspot Talula’s Table. Other gardeners (and, really, anyone who appreciates the outdoors) frequently bring their own champagne for mimosas at Terrain at Styer’s Garden Cafe, the greenhouse-dwelling restaurant inside Glen Mills’ Urban Outfitters-run garden center. City dwellers have been known to make the drive for meals at spots such as Chester County’s Birchrunville Store Café, a spot for fine dining on chef-owner Francis Trzeciak’s goat cheese croquette and signature warm butterscotch cake served with dulce de leche gelato. Perhaps the most bucolic BYOB is Wyebrook Farm, where resident chef Mike Baver prepares the ultimate in farm-to-table Friday night dinners to be ordered at a walk-up window and enjoyed at a pond-side picnic table—in summer only. Northeast of the city, diners head to Blue Sage Vegetarian Grille for serious meat-free, California-inspired eats.
The New Guard:
Every year, start-up BYOBs raise the city’s culinary bar. Newcomers that are taking food to new heights include Passyunk Avenue’s artful Malaysian spot Saté Kampar, known for fragrantly marinated goat, pork and tofu grilled over coconut charcoal; vermicelli or slow-cooked beef rendang bundled in banana-leaves and for dessert, black rice or sago pudding. Nearby at Perla, pioneering chef Lou Boquila creates modern Filipino fare in the city’s first such venture—and serves traditional, eat-with-your-hands Kamayan dinners on Sundays (by reservation only). At Old City’s candlelit, live-jazz-playing, elegant Wister, classically trained chef Benjamin Moore focuses on hyper-local seafood preparations. Breakfast nachos and cheesesteak omelets start the day and decadent burgers and classic Cobb salads end it at Point Breeze newcomer On Point. Chef Konstantinos Pitsillides’ corner Kanella Grill has transformed into a favorite family-friendly hangout for Cypriot kebabs, shwarma and salads in Washington Square West.
Those who’d rather mix instead of swirl, sniff and quaff can still enjoy libations at BYOBs catering to non-wine drinkers. South Street’s Jamaican Jerk Hut offers homemade ginger beer that mixes with rum and lime to make Bermuda-inspired dark ‘n’ stormies. At Las Cazuelas in Northern Liberties, patrons are encouraged to bring their own tequila for mixing with regular and flavored margarita mixes made in house. Down-home joints like Sweet Lucy’s Smokehouse (for some of the best barbecue in town) and Tacconelli’s Pizzeria (where devoted customers call a day ahead to reserve their pizza dough) are perfect for toting along a six-pack of locally brewed Philadelphia Brewing Company ales.
BYOB Fun Facts:
One of the little-known secrets of the region’s BYOBs? They might offer drinks to patrons; diners just can’t pay for them. Friendly BYOB owner-operators have long taken pity on patrons who’ve arrived to dinner sans libations and often keep a backup supply of vino for such occasions. Still others, such as Fishtown’s Modo Mio, gladly pour patrons post-meal shots of Sambuca. On occasion, an Italian restaurant (Fiorino in East Falls and Scannicchio’s and L’Angolo Ristorante in South Philly) may offer up some sweet, tart—and totally complimentary—limoncello.
As the popularity of BYOBs persists, many restaurants with liquor licenses have relaxed their policies for patrons wishing to bring their own libations. At Passyunk Avenue’s authentically Abruzzi Le Virtù, diners pay a nominal corkage fee of $10 to BYO—except on Tuesdays, when they BYOB for free. South Philly’s Paradiso allows diners to bring their own on Sundays for no fee; Old City’s Positano Coast does the same (wine only) during Sunday brunch. Chef Nick Elmi’s acclaimed Laurel, first established as a BYOB, continues to invite diners to partake in that tradition—or to enjoy a glass, flight or bottle of wine (or a cocktail) from his new bar next door, ITV. Garces Trading Company honors its BYOB origins by letting patrons bring their own spirits. Fairmount’s London Grill is known for its Paris Wine Bar, but nonetheless welcomes BYOBers Sundays through Thursdays.
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