Philadelphia's BYOB Phenomenon

Wine

Philadelphia is a city of tight knit neighborhoods; and since the late nineties, these neighborhoods have become breeding grounds for ”bring your own bottle,” or BYOB, restaurants. Fewer than five BYOBs operated in Philadelphia in 1996, and today there are over 250.  With state laws making it quite difficult to obtain a liquor license, budding restaurant owners have migrated toward the BYOB option. Consequently,  residents and visitors alike who dine out in Philly and its surrounding areas have grown to appreciate the simplicity and flexibility of the BYOB format; not to mention the positive effect it has on their wallets.

The definition of a BYOB is simple: Dine out and bring your own alcohol. And by doing so, you’re likely to save money. The average alcoholic drink in Philadelphia is around $6. At a dinner for two, you’re likely to spend at least $20 on alcohol alone, plus tax.  By bringing your own drink, a $50 meal becomes a $30 meal; and if you choose wisely, the alcohol you bring will be much more plentiful than the watered down vodka-cranberry a regular restaurant might serve.

It’s not difficult to see why Philadelphians love their BYOBs, but one must ask: Why the sudden increase in the number of BYOBs over the past decade?

In a September 2007 article on todaysdietician.com, April White refers to the rapid influx of these quaint dining establishments as “a unique enigma.” A little research into the Pennsylvania Liquor Control board (LCB) uncovered this oddity to which White refers.  The PA LCB filing fees alone range from $700-$2000 depending on the type of restaurant you’re planning to open, and this doesn’t even include the price of the actual license. According to the PA Liquor Control Board: 

"Prices of liquor licenses are governed by the marketplace, and are neither monitored nor regulated by the Board.  Generally, a license is sold by its owner in conjunction with the building in which it is located. In cases where a license is sold separately, the cost is usually higher than when a license and building are sold as a package."

This statement suggests that if a person hopes to purchase a license from a restaurant’s previous owner, he or she must deal directly with that person.  It’s obvious how this could become tricky.  According to the PA Liquor License Exchange, “depending on location and the type of license one is trying to obtain, licenses have been sold from $5,000 to $400,000.”

And if all this weren’t confusing enough, there is something called the Quota Law in Pennsylvania, which states that, “the number of licenses for the retail sale of malt or brewed beverages and liquor is limited to one license for each three thousand inhabitants in any county.” It deems that “Once the number of existing retail licenses in a municipality exceeds one license per three thousand residents, then an applicant who wishes to move into that municipality must receive written approval, in the form of an ordinance or resolution following a hearing, from the municipality before the Board can consider the application.” In Philadelphia County there are 1.4 million inhabitants.  Consequently, there should only be about 467 restaurants that serve alcohol.  Currently there are over 1000 active licensees, making it extremely tough for newcomers.

Now that the technical reasoning behind the onslaught of BYOB restaurants has been clarified, let’s hop back over to the money-saving basis of the BYOB, and how it has quickly and quietly made its mark on the city of Philadelphia. In 2006, Delta Sky Magazine Writer Ed Wetcher conducted an interview with Audrey Claire Taichman, famed owner of Audrey Claire, a Rittenhouse staple rumored to be one of the first BYOBs ever in Philadelphia. When asked why the restaurant was such an instant hit, Taichman’s immediate response is that “the customers save money.” She also explains that on top of the licensing fees, liquor must be marked up several times in order to make a profit.  With operating a BYOB, this issue does not exist. This interview offers even more evidence as to why Philadelphia restaurateurs have migrated toward the BYOB trend.  Not only do the customers save money, but the owners are able to minimize their operational costs and become profitable much faster than they would were they a licensed liquor-serving establishment.

After pioneer BYOB restaurants like Audrey Claire began sprouting up in the late 90s, others followed.  Today, each of the city’s neighborhoods boasts a few of their own signature BYOBs. In fact, when Philadelphia Magazine released their top 50 restaurants for 2009, a whopping 37 of them were BYOBs.  Among those on the list were Melograno, a mid-sized Italian masterpiece of chef Gianluca Demontis, boasting signature dishes and a high end lively atmosphere; Little Fish, a South Philly mom-and-pop shop famous for its Sunday-Night-Only, five-course $28 tasting menu; and Marigold Kitchen, which serves “New American” fare in the University City neighborhood.

A Philadelphia diner can find a BYOB in almost every variety from sushi to Mexican. A few of my personal favorites are listed below.

Modo Mio

Just north of 2nd Street, an area known for its hipster vibe, this corner establishment offers an award-winning Italian dining experience that is well worth the trek to Girard Street. Chef Peter McAndrews keeps the menu simple and delivers on every dish.  Cannelloni with prosciutto-wrapped jumbo lump crab, butternut squash marmalata and crispy leeks Lasagna with butternut squash, and toasted marshmallow and taleggio cream are just a small glimpse of the creative offerings on the menu. A four course menu is also available every night for only $32.

Radicchio Café

This place serves the epitome of hearty Italian food and keeps it simple.  Located on the “quieter” north end of Olde City on 4th and York Streets, Radicchio offers traditional dishes such as Insalata di Mare, Spaghetti al Pomodoro and Veal Milanese.  Complimentary Bruschetta and Sambuca are served as satisfying starters that please both those guests out on the town and those in search of a simple good meal.

Lolita

Fiery Latin flare and towering pitchers of vibrant Margarita mix define this Chestnut Street eatery.  Lolita is the only self proclaimed BYOT (Tequila) in Philadelphia, and they turn out quite a crowd all week long offering unique selections from South-of-the-Border.  Lolita is open for dinner only and accepts cash only. 

La Viola

La Viola is another Italian favorite and this BYOB offers indoor and outdoor seating on both sides of South 15th Street between Spruce and Latimer Streets.  Here guests can enjoy scrumptious traditional Italian-American large family-style dishes.  La Viola is a great place to go for an early dinner followed by a night out in the hip Rittenhouse Square area, only a short walk to the North.  Cash only.

Chabaa Thai Bistro

A welcomed addition to the Main Street Manayunk restaurant strip, Chabaa Thai Bistro offers mouth watering Thai dishes, drawing those with a taste for South East Asian delight.  The more common Pad Thai plates such as the outstanding spicy Pad Kee-Mao (Crazy Noodles) are large enough to be split and easily satisfy two people. 

Sprinkled throughout the City of Brotherly Love, BYOB restaurants have appeared in numbers, and for good reason.  The money saving affect they have on both diners and owners is one that isn’t taken lightly these days. Spend some time strolling around Philadelphia’s neighborhoods and you’ll be sure to find a comfortable little spot to call your own BYOB.

 

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