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Articles April, 2006

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The BYO Paradise: Philly/South Jersey

 

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On my various wine websites (here at marksquires.com, and the Bulletin Board now hosted on eRobertParker.com), BYOB--"bring your own booze," or, more gently, "bottle"--restaurants, have often been a hot topic because of the many frustrations arising from the clash of restaurant business models and consumer expectations. Where once it was hard to find a good BYOB, this region can now fairly be called a BYOB paradise, unmatched perhaps anywhere but in California, where BYOB friendly restaurants are legion due to their proximity to the local wine industry. Call it, Paradise Gained.

The Bad Old Days

So, before we get to some restaurant picks and tips, permit me a few moments to revel in the triumph of ideas and concepts I trumpeted loudly beginning in the '80s.  It wasn't always the way it is today.  Let's distinguish at the outset between "true" BYOBs--those with no licenses--and licensed establishments that let you BYO, usually subject to corkage. In the bad old days, good, true BYOBS were simply too few in number. Every time a good BYOB closed, it was cause for months of mourning because it was so hard to replace. Some still are remembered fondly, like  Brera.

On the other hand, negotiating BYO privileges with licensed restaurants was often simply impossible--even, bizarrely,  when it seemed to be very much in the restaurant's interest as well as the customer's, as  I have argued online in the past.  Some restaurants seem not to comprehend that 300% of $0 received is still $0 profit.  Customers who stay home or go someplace else because of draconian policies do not generate income.  Logic, however, rarely prevailed. They had it in their heads that allowing customers to bring wine, even subject to a corkage fee, was BAD, a serious threat to their business, and nothing was going to change that, even when it was demonstrably untrue. 

Thus, the BYOB wars with respect to licensed restaurants were furious and frequent due to a clash of expectations between consumers and restaurants. To consumers, a bottle of wine sold by a restaurant has little or no added value. There is the occasional restaurant with a truly amazing cellar, but for every restaurant that stores 50 year old wines and thousands of bottles, sells nothing before its time, and has perfect wine service and expensive glasses, there are several thousand establishments that just have high turnover cellars, and do little but uncork the wine and pour it.  You can't help but wonder why you have to pay $35 for a wine with a retail price of $11.99.  To restaurants, on the other hand, alcohol sales, with their high, ritualistic markups, are a key profit center.  These differing perspectives led to more than a few problems, and common sense was usually the loser.

How Bad Can it Get?

For instance, in one bistro (although in New York, the attitude was all too typical of what we encountered locally),  we once showed up with several fine bottles thinking it would be easy to arrange corkage because this place had a very modest wine list while we had some serious wines they could not begin to match. Admittedly, we should have called first. Still, here was a restaurant whose best bottle generated perhaps a $15 profit.  So, we offered them $15 corkage on EACH bottle we wanted to bring. They would get all of their potential profit based on their best bottle (many BYOers would say that corkage should be based on the worst bottle, since the restaurant is willing to entertain customers who only order the worst bottle).  Plus, they would still have their own wine to keep and to sell to someone else.  Since we had over half a dozen bottles, they would no doubt make more in wine sales from our table than most others in the place.  Yet, they would not let us bring in a single bottle. We left, leaving an empty table staring us--and them--in the face.   In Philadelphia, we once got privileges at Susanna Foo, begrudgingly.  They wound up sticking in so many extra charges, that we wound up paying what amounted to triple corkage fees. We got the message, and we haven't been back since. It was even common in this region to hear restaurants tell you that BYO was illegal--which it certainly is not, and I have written legal opinions from the Liquor Control Board to prove it.

Things have changed in part because restauranteurs learned their lessons the hard way.   To take one example,  the Italian-themed Ernesto's 1521 Café on Spruce Street used to be a "true" BYOB. We were regulars. We were surprised to find that when he got a license, he refused to allow us to bring wine any more under any circumstances, with or without corkage. We stopped going, and  I don't think we were alone in that decision. Now, here's a neighborhood place that often depends on pre-concert bookings. How much wine will people order off of his list? Yet, our arguments failed. In the meanwhile, the area near the Kimmel Center has become a mecca for Italian restaurants that allow you to bring your own--Prima Donna, La Baia, Mercato, Fontana della Citta, Branzino, La Viola, to name a few. I call it Uptown Little Italy.  In the face of this competition, 1521 Café now allows BYO on most days of the week, just as we suggested way back when.  We, meanwhile, have developed other favorites in the area and have not been back in a long while. Losing someplace like 1521 Café really would have hurt in 1985. In 2005, there were an awful lot of competitors around to pick up the slack.

That is, of course, what has fueled the change in attitude throughout the region--competition. True BYOs--those with no licenses--have become common for a variety of reasons. In South Jersey, the hideous cost of a liquor license and restrictions on availability often makes BYOing a restaurant's first choice for a business model. In Philadelphia, the trend just seems to have caught on, each success leading to another, but I suspect also that the BYOB explosion was fueled largely by the difficulty restaurants have in working within Pennsylvania's restrictive, government-owned liquor distribution system. That system translated into high priced wines on the list, limited selection, high taxes, and no discounts for volume purchases. All of that might make it easier to just give up and go BYOB, for both the business and the consumer.

To be sure, there are still some holdouts with a lotta attytood, as we like to say in Philly. Save yourself the aggravation of asking for corkage rights at Vetri, for instance. Even if you get them to agree, my experience is that it will be begruding and not a pleasant experience. It seemed as if we were cross-examined on a bottle-by-bottle basis to make sure they were worthy to bring in. Who needs the aggravation?  I live near Sfizzio, and once asked them if we could bring in wine subject to corkage. The manager solemnly took my card. I haven't heard back from him yet. I suspect I never will. In my neighborhood, there are dozens of good choices. So...there is no point arguing. We just go someplace else where we are welcome and well treated. Many places are in fact delighted to have us--wine folks order everything in sight, travel in groups and spend freely, particularly on off nights--i.e., we don't just show up on Friday and Saturday.

BYO in Licensed Restaurants

The bottom line is that there has never been more opportunity to BYO,  whether in a true BYOB or licensed restaurant. One caveat though---there are still "issues" and courtesies to be observed when you BYO into a licensed restaurant.   Where BYOB is permitted, there may be various restrictions. For example, in licensed places, corkage is common,  with $10-$15 or so being routine in an upscale place. I know of some places in New York closer to $80. That's per bottle.  Also, make sure the restaurant allows BYOB on the night you want to come in, if at all.  Restrictions and rules vary widely, and as with everything in life,  regulars and those recognized as really being interested in wine--rather than just being  cheap--may get better deals. 

Note also that if you are graciously granted the right to BYO into a licensed place, you have some obligations, too, which can be summarized as: "Don't be a jerk."  For one thing, you need to be a more generous tipper, particularly if the restaurant waives corkage. That means the server is getting $0 on the alcohol portion of the bill, whereas normally it would have generated some income.  Especially if there is no corkage fee, assume that the minimum tip is 25%, and you might consider 30%.  If you do the math, it won't add that much to your bill, and will be a meaningful courtesy to your server. It will also ensure that restaurants do not become disgruntled at the practice of allowing BYO for modest or no corkage. There are other formulations--but the point is, you need to leave some extra money.   Finally, if you are bringing wine into a licensed restaurant, have the decency not to go around the corner and pick out some cheap junk that is usually similar to what can be found on most any low end list. There is nothing that gives BYOers a poorer reputation with licensed restaurants than those who make it clear that they couldn't really care less about what they are drinking as long as they can save $5 on a markup. In fact, often I've found that a lot of stated corkage policies are simply designed to weed out the cheapskates, and the corkage fees are waived or moderated when the restaurant finds that the consumer is really interested in the wine.  If all you really want is a Sutter Home White Zin--that's a good time to pick a true BYOB and not burden a licensed establishment.

All that said, paradise awaits, and in true BYOBs, it rarely costs much more than $40-$50 per person, including tax and tip, thanks to BYOB. Let's take a look.

Restaurant Picks and Tips

1. Uptown Little Italy

I mentioned the burgeoning Little Italy in uptown Center City, and it is indeed interesting. First off the bat is my personal favorite, Prima Donna, 1506 Spruce Street, 215 790-0171. (Note: on my website, marksquires.com/byob.htm, there is a long list of BYOB places, complete with reviews and phone numbers).  This was started by the Frusone family, and they also owned at various points the recently departed San Carlo and Gnocchi, in the South Street area.  They have one of the best antipasti selections in the City, and are very wine friendly.  This is a licensed restaurant with a stated policy of allowing corkage-free BYOB on most nights. I might take some credit for this policy, since I was a long time regular at San Carlo, singing the praises of the logic of BYOB. Changing times and inevitable logic prevailed. Call ahead for details. Also nearby are a group of true BYOBs.  La Fontana della Citta, 1701 Spruce Street (215) 875-9990, with some of the friendliest service you can get, seems quite authentic even though owned by Albanians. Then, there's the rather elegant Branzino, with its signature fish dish of Branzino. 61 South 17th Street   (215) 790-0103.  It's odd, but I sometimes think of Branzino and Fontana as twins. They just seem somewhat similar, big, spacious, Italian. Branzino is perhaps a bit more elegant and understated, drawing an older crowd from the Rittenhouse Square area, and Fontana a bit more effusive and cheerful. If you really want lively, though,   Mercato, 1216 Spruce Street, (215) 985-2962, on the East side of Broad, is young and trendy.  I also like La Baia, 1700 Lombard, (215) 546-0496, a lot, although it is very tiny and not really suitable for groups. The food is basic, but hearty and dirt cheap at La Viola, 253 S. 16th St.,  215-735-8630, which is, however, noisy and hectic. The friendly service is a big plus, though.  Space does not permit mention of every restaurant,  but this area has become a BYO magnet, particularly at the Italian end of the spectrum.

2. Other Italians

Since we are on the subject of Italian, and since this is Philadelphia, where Italian places are everywhere, let's continue with a few more in that vein.  Some top choices are Radicchio, 4th & Wood (314 York St., officially)  215-627-6801 in Olde City, noisy and hectic, but friendly and cheap, with excellent food. Then, there is the burgeoning Restaurant Row in South Philly. Just around the corner from the main drag, there is Franko & Luigi's,13th & Tasker Sts, (215) 755-8900,  where the waiters sing opera. Make Franko sing. He's good!The food is basic Italian, good for its type, not trying to be more.  I particularly like the Pollo Puccini and Veal Evita. You can't have more fun than this for $40 per person or so, for a meal and no cover. Thursday is open mike night, and while the volunteers are often variable, even the bad ones (the one we call Elmer Fudd who mistakenly thinks he can sing opera comes to mind)  have a certain amusement factor. Right on the main drag of Restaurant Row in South Philly, try Albertino's, 1617 E. Passyunk Ave. Philadelphia, PA 19148 (215) 339-5211,  a more traditional and elegant place.  Off South Street is Hostaria da Elio, 615 South 3rd St.,  215-925-0930, a warm, family style place with traditional dishes.

3. From Thai to Mexico to Greece and Back Again

Tired of Italian yet? Some of the best and most interesting places aren't, so we have just begun to eat. One of my favorites is NAN, in University City. Khamul, who became famous for Thai-influenced French food at Alouette, runs an Asian-fusion, true BYOB at 4000 Chestnut,  215- 382-0818. The dishes are often Asian, sometimes not, always well done. It presents good food matchup choices for fans of Alsatian and German varietals, too.  Another interesting pick is PIF, 1009 South 8th St., between Washington & Carpenter, 215-625-2923 which, as an added bonus has a free parking lot next door. When Georges Perrier of Le Bec Fin participated in a special event, this was where he chose to cook for his guest appearance.  This is styled as a French bistro, and it offers dishes along those lines. I've liked it more and more as time goes on, but one attraction for wine lovers is the crowd--a mix of neighborhood folks and wine collectors. Go at the right time, and you'll see an impressive selection of wines around the room.

The University City area has become more and more interesting these days, too. Apart from NAN, mentioned above, there is the always-interesting Marigold Kitchen, 501 South 45th, 215-222-3699  (cross street: Larchwood) Off University of Pennsylvania campus (5 blocks south of Market St), which has a creative approach to food, and lots of atmosphere--being located in a century-old home in a surprisingly appealing neighborhood. Marigold has changed chefs recently, the new chef being a former Vetri employee, and it will be interesting to watch its progress.

The chefs keep getting younger as the BYOB explosion continues. On South Street, an interesting choice is NEXT ( as in, self-proclaimed, the "next great BYOB"), 223  South St (215) 629-8688, new in the Fall of 2004. I've had pretty good meals here. The decor is decidedly minimalist, but it is comfortable, and they are trying hard to be creative. In Olde City, I like Bistro "7," at  7 North Third Street, 215-931-1560, also owned by young and up and comers, and trying hard to stand out. This place has the advantage of being a bit more attractive than most BYOBs, and a bit roomier. The first meal we had there was a bit off, in their first week, but since then I've liked it. Both have that American eclectic style. Of the two, I think Bistro 7 may have more of an upside for haute cuisine, and I had some great venison here.

The diversity in Philadelphia BYOBs is virtually unlimited. If you are not sated yet, try Lolita, 106 South 13th (at Sansom), (215) 546-7100,  a new-ish place on a rehabbing block. This is haute Mexican cuisine, and the atmosphere is trendy and young, very lively. I'm not always sure everything here always works, but it is fun to try different things.  For those who want something classic and traditional, let's not forget the Grande Dame of Philadelphia BYOBs, Overtures, 609 E. Passyunk (off 5th & South Streets), (215) 627-3455.  Overtures has been proving for years that you can make money without liquor sales. The cooking is refined and Continental in style. Bring your classic wines, the Bordeaux and Burgundies,  here. Go for the crabcakes and the lamb, signature dishes. Overtures is one of the prettier BYOBs around. It provides a touch of elegance and romance and is a good date place. Atmosphere and refined ambience are not always the first thought in these types of restaurants.  Case in point: old standby Dmitris, 7 North Third Street, 215-931-1560, hummus to kill for, mounds of grilled octopus awaiting you as you walk in.  This is supposedly a Greek restaurant, but it has little in common with the run-of-the-mill Greek dishes one sees around, like souvlaki. Rushed and hurried, this place takes no reservations and is very frustrating for that reason. It is always packed because the food is great and ridiculously cheap. It is an experience hard to replicate, but not exactly elegant dining. Get there when it opens, or prepare to wait. And prepare to eat fast. This is white wine territory, mostly.

Finally, no Center City review of BYOBs would be complete without mention of Django, 609 E. Passyunk (off 5th & South Streets), (215) 627-3455  and Matyson, 37 South 19th Street, Heart of Center City Phila, (215) 564-2925. Both of these restaurants are American-eclectic, and both would be on any short list for Best BYOB in the city. Things have changed at Django, though, as it was recently bought up by the owners of RX in University City. My take is that it is not quite the same, but I look forward to trying it again. Many people I know think it has slipped a notch. Time will tell, and maybe it will be possible to get a reservation.  Many would say that leaves Matyson as the best true BYOB in Center City.  It is welcoming, and the food is usually super for very modest prices. They have frequent multi-course banquet specials built around themes. Get on their email list. Without question, this is one of my favorite BYOBs.

4. Some Licensed, Wine-Friendly Places

Exhausted yet? Those are just a few samples, and we haven't even gotten to the licensed places that publicly allow BYO. (If you're a regular, the rules may change on a case-by-case basis in many places.)   I previously mentioned Prima Donna in what I call the Uptown Little Italy, but two other good picks are Fork, and Farmicia. Farmicia, 15 S. 3rd Street (215) 627-6274,  is relatively new. Wednesday is corkage free BYO. I have generally liked the place a lot, although it has received some spotty reviews. One thing you may have noticed in my comments on BYOBs---cramped, no ambience, etc--doesn't apply here. This is probably even nicer in appearance than Overtures, and while not quite as intimate, there are few BYOBs in the area as attractive. You feel upscale here, and it's a good place to take someone you want to impress. Fork, 306 Market Street, (215) 625-9425, by contrast, long ago shed its trendy image, and became what every neighborhood needs, even a neighborhood like Olde City/Society Hill--a Home Bar, where everyone knows your name.  Through the marketing and management genius of Ellen Yin, it is the ultimate neighborhood place, upscale and with great food. It feels like home.  It allows BYO subject to $15 corkage. There are frequent wine dinner events. Get on their email list.

5. New Jersey

When you turn to New Jersey, the question tends to become not where you can BYO, but where you can't. If Philadelphia sometimes seems like an embarrassment of riches, New Jersey looks like a BYOer died and went to heaven. Because its liquor license laws create such incentives for BYOBs to exist as normal entities, there are an unusual number of  BYOBs in Jersey. Some of them are quite upscale.  They don't seem like BYOBs at all....except they are.  Two examples: La Campagne, 312 Kresson Rd., Cherry Hill, NJ  (856) 429-7647,  and A Little Café, Plaza Shoppes, 118 White Horse Rd., Voorhees, NJ  609-784-3344. They aren't the type that strike you as BYOBs, which are usually a bit on the "no frills" side.  I have particularly liked La Campagne over the years, elegant and lovely, like an upscale French country inn. The chefs have changed frequently, and not all have been winners, but many meals have been exceptional.  Little Café is Continental/American eclectic and very good.  You'll spend a bit more money here than at some more typical BYOBS, like Mercato or La Viola, for example, but they do a fine job.

For something different, try Cafe Mélange, 1601 Chapel Avenue, Cherry Hill, NJ 856 663 7339 a self-proclaimed mix of Italian and New Orleans fare. Love the crabmeat cheesecake! A fine Italian restaurant is Bacio, 2806 Route 130 North, Cinnaminson, NJ , NJ 856 303-9100, big and friendly, with lots of choices and a talented, engaging chef.  New Jersey also has a fine selection of Asian and Asian-fusion restaurants. One good pick would be Siri's, 2117-2119 Route 70 West, Cherry Hill, NJ  (TRACK TOWN MALL) (856)  663-6781.   The "Golden Bags" appetizer is a favorite of mine, crispy outside in sweet and sour sauce, stuffed with seafood.

The easiest place to get to in New Jersey for Center City Philadelphians is the hot Haddon Avenue restaurant district in Collingswood, readily accessible to Center City by PATCO (and not driving can be a good idea at a wine dinner).  The main drag is just two blocks from the train station, an easy walk. Fine restaurants with nice decor and fine food include Nunzio's, 706 Haddon Ave.,  Collingswood, N.J. 856-858-9840, owned by the highly regarded former chef of the Monte Carlo Living Room, and Word of Mouth, 729 Haddon Avenue, Collingswood, N.J.  (856) 858.2450 whose owners also own the popular Food for Thought.   Word of Mouth is continental/American-eclectic, and Nunzio's is Italian, made by a real Italian. It tends to work out that way.

6. The 'burbs--and the BEST BYOB?

I don't get out to the 'burbs as often as I'd like, but my hands down pick out there for a destination BYOB would have to be Gilmore's, 133 East Gay Street, West Chester, (610) 431-2800 Chester County. In fact, I may have to go one step further. Gilmore's may simply be the best BYOB in the region. Chef Peter Gilmore, a Le Bec Fin alumnus, provides refined and creative cooking in a warm atmosphere. It's small, and hard to get a reservation on weekends, but it is worth the wait.  If Gilmore's were in Center City, I might have to ask them to assign a table for me permanently.  These things are never clear and the answer may differ on any given night, but if I had to pick just one BYOB to go to, I think Gilmore's would be it. Thankfully, I don't have to make that choice.

If you're like me, this surfeit of choices becomes almost paralyzing. I've left out of this article any number of places I like a lot. And there are still places out there I've been meaning to try, but just can't get to. If my waistline and my wallet could afford to let me go out every night of the week, I would still not be able to keep up with the places I love, not to mention the new ones that keep opening and deserve a trial. So, all I can say is, do your best, diet at lunch time, and help the local economy. 

 


Copyright Mark Squires, © 2006 all rights reserved.

 

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