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Navigating Washington's Cork Control

By Dave McIntyre
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 7, 2007

U nlike in Philly, it's not easy -- or cheap -- for wine lovers to bring their own bottles to most restaurants in the Washington area. Unlicensed places aren't allowed to let customers bring their own in Virginia or the District, while Maryland law leaves it up to the counties. (Montgomery and Prince George's prohibit the practice, but Howard allows it.)

In fact, in Virginia and Maryland even restaurants that have liquor licenses are prohibited from letting patrons bring their own, a practice called corkage because the servers uncork the wine for diners.

The District allows corkage, but restaurant policies and prices vary widely. That's why it's always a good idea to ask ahead of time.

For example, Citronelle doesn't allow corkage at all, while its sister restaurant, Central, charges a relatively modest $15 per bottle. Zola also charges $15 per bottle, as does Corduroy, though with a limit of three bottles per party -- and only if the wines are not on the restaurant's list.

Charlie Palmer Steak, which courts members of Congress with its flag-waving all-American wine list, allows customers to bring two bottles of American wine free of charge. Additional bottles, as well as any foreign wines, will cost you $25 each for the privilege.

Dino's enoteca in Cleveland Park will waive its $20 fee if you also buy a bottle off its impressive list of Italian wines. Marcel's will sometimes waive its $35 fee for patrons who buy a bottle or for regular customers.

"We have 500 wines on our list," Ramon Narvaez, Marcel's sommelier, says proudly. "But we do want our customers to be able to enjoy those special bottles they may have an emotional attachment to."

Last September, the Oval Room began waiving fees altogether on Saturday nights. With two days' notice, chef Tony Conte can prepare a menu to match the wines. Clyde's of Georgetown welcomes your wine any night with open arms and no fee.

Some restaurants offer wine bargains by operating retail shops that act as their wine list; you can enjoy the wine in the restaurant for just a few dollars more than the retail price. Such restaurants include Tallula in Arlington, Evening Star Cafe in Alexandria and the Iron Bridge Wine Co. in Columbia.

Dave McIntyre is the restaurant and drinks columnist for DC magazine.

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