Philadelphia's BYO Revolution

(Helayne Seidman - Helayne Seidman Ftwp)
By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 7, 2007

PHILADELPHIA It was the guy with the shiny metal case. He's the one who drove home how much the bring-your-own-bottle aesthetic has profoundly changed this city's dining scene.

We were at Pumpkin, a 28-seat restaurant owned by a young couple in a neighborhood that, depending on your outlook, could be called emerging, marginal or flat-out dicey. The candlelit former deli has a single storefront window and an open kitchen. Gauzy orange curtains hang from exposed fixtures, and the secondhand tables, pushed tight together, are covered in butcher paper. The short, frequently changing menu is printed on a single sheet of paper. The food, such as braised veal cheeks, pan-seared sea scallops or a pork chop served over spaetzle, is admirable and at times approaches outstanding.

In other words, Pumpkin follows the pattern of cool BYOBs all over Philadelphia, where crowds of people with brown paper bags of wine and beer in tow wait patiently for tables. My companion and I had removed a 2004 Turley zinfandel from our bag, while the table behind us had unsheathed a 2000 Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino. The table of young people to my left pulled a cheap magnum of Yellow Tail chardonnay and a six-pack of Amstel Light from a plastic shopping bag.

Then the gray-haired gentleman and his date took their seats next to us. He flipped open the metal case and, with a flourish, unpacked a rare cult cabernet sauvignon that would retail for more than $200. But this guy hadn't just brought his own bottle. He also unwrapped two gleaming Reidel crystal glasses. The restaurant stemware apparently wasn't good enough.

It's hard to think of another city where a diner might feel similarly empowered. At a traditional restaurant with an established wine list and the service to go along with it, such an act would be considered heresy. But as David Snyder, who writes the popular blog, put it, "There's a little bit of rebellion here. You and the restaurant are sort of on the same level."

Over the past decade, Philadelphia has experienced an astounding boom in BYOB dining. When Audrey Claire opened in 1996, it was one of only two fine-dining BYOBs in the city, along with longtime favorite Dmitri's. Now, in the metropolitan region, there are more than 240.

According to a recent survey by the online reservation service, 63 percent of Philadelphia diners said they had taken their own wine to a fine-dining restaurant within their last 10 meals. That's compared to a national average of 27 percent and more than double the percentages in New York and wine-crazy San Francisco. In the survey, Washington's diners were the least likely to bring their own wine to a restaurant; brown-bagging to unlicensed restaurants in the District is illegal, and corkage policies at licensed restaurants are all over the map.

The Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. promotes the BYOB concept to out-of-towners under the slogan "Brown-bagging is chic." The Zagat guide to Philadelphia is the only one that has its own separate category for BYOB restaurants.

Philadelphia Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan says the prevalence of these no-liquor-license restaurants, which charge no corkage fee, has shifted the balance of power. "One of the biggest flashpoints for diner angst is dealing with a wine," he says. At a BYOB, diners don't have to depend on the advice of a sommelier to help them navigate a wine list or worry about an "incorrect" choice.

A major reason for the rise of the BYOB has been the state-controlled monopoly on wine distribution. Restaurants and consumers must buy their wine through the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, which also operates all the retail wine stores. In general, wines are more expensive than through private distributors. That means small profit margins for restaurateurs -- unless they triple or quadruple the price. But since everyone is buying from the same source, diners are extremely price conscious.

Budget-mindedness is a big part of the BYOB appeal. Snyder says he recently found a bottle at a state liquor store for $14 that he'd ordered in a restaurant for $50. For diners with more expensive taste in wine, the same $30 or $40 that wouldn't get them too far in a restaurant can open up whole new categories of quality in a wine shop.

At a state liquor store, for instance, I recently bought a $25 bottle of Nebbiolo that I've seen on several restaurant wine lists for well over $60. With it stowed in a brown bag, I braved an hour-long wait at Melograno, one of the best of the city's many Italian BYOBs. The wine was an especially nice complement to roasted quail stuffed with figs and walnuts.

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