How to BYOB and Not Be a Jerk About It

Bringing your own wine or spirits to a restaurant is a gift, not a guarantee.

A group of people enjoy rose at a restaurant
Photo: Yulia Grigoryeva / Shutterstock

At a recent wine dinner hosted at the Mediterranean gem of a restaurant Stina in South Philadelphia, I was handed a splash of pink effervescent Domaine de la Petite Roche de Loire Rose. The glass broke in my hand, and it was replaced in a magical instant by an excellent server who, prior to this night, had no knowledge of this particular wine. Stina is a BYOB. The wine was a boon, brought by my host and I was fortunate to drink it, but there's more to that than what meets the eye.

I spoke to three other businesses in Philly at various points of the bring-your-own-bottle spectrum: Gabriella's Vietnam (no corkage fee, long time limit on tables), Her Place Supper Club (recently transitioned from BYOB to liquor-licensed), as well as Terence Lewis, the beverage director of Safran Turney Hospitality, which encompasses a host of different concepts with full bars and corkage fees. They didn't all agree on all points of BYO etiquette, but they all offered insightful answers to my barrage of questions.

As a diner, I see a lot of benefits in going to BYOB venues. I have the option of curating the beverage portion of my dinner and in Philadelphia, where corkage fees are relatively uncommon, I am often faced with a diminutive bill at the end of the night.

Philadelphia is a BYOB town, due to our archaic liquor laws and prohibitively costly liquor licenses. I ask the chef-owner of Stina, Bobby Saritsoglou how much it would cost for him to carry wines and liquors and he estimates, "Upwards of $200,000. I don't have that kind of money. I'm a BYO because I have to be."

And yet, Stina, like every other BYOB I speak with, provides all the glassware for customers. Saritsoglou does try to source inexpensive glassware, such as purchasing it from Philly AIDS Thrift (founded by his wife, Christina), but of course, glasses are regularly casualties in kitchens, and this expense adds up.

"Every week, I'm opening a new case of wine glasses," says Thanh Nguyen, the chef-owner of 42-seat BYOB Gabriella's Vietnam. "Every single day, at least one glass breaks. On the weekends, even more."

Chef Amanda Shulman reflects on when Her Place was a BYO, "Even though we were able to recommend bottles for each menu, we felt like we were missing out on providing guests with a full experience. Now we have an eight wine-by-the-glass list (as well as an 82-bottle list). From a revenue perspective, we were missing out on a large financial opportunity. Restaurant margins are so slim. The boost from alcohol is integral in allowing us to pay everyone well and operate how we see fit."

Here are some rules of thumb that ensure you bring your own with the utmost class. Be mindful that even if you're providing the wine, the restaurant is still supplying glassware, people, and equipment to clean that glassware, servers to open and serve the wine they are not charging for, and recycling services for all those empty bottles.

Call ahead and consider sharing.

"Always call ahead to ask if it's okay to bring your own bottles, even if you did so in the past at that restaurant. The beverage manager would always like to know this is happening," says Lewis. "Never assume you may bring more than one bottle and if the bottle you are bringing is exceptionally rare, old, or otherwise special, offering the sommelier or beverage manager a half glass of the wine is standard etiquette."

Respect the corkage fee and the establishment.

"Curating a wine list takes a lot of time and effort, from tasting the wines, finding new and interesting wines that fit into the cost of goods structure, to ordering them, inventory, and storage. Service of the wine is all part of the cost of the restaurant's markup of the wine," explains Lewis.

"You are paying for the talents of a person to find these wines and pair them with the restaurant. To bring in a commercial, easily accessible wine isn't in the spirit of the corkage fee, which is not there for a way to pay less on beverages, it's an allowance we make for people that want to share a special bottle that we don't sell – whether it's old, rare, or has emotional value to the guests."

The bottle is now part of service, so respect the restaurant's wishes.

"If a guest brings a bottle in and they seem intoxicated, they are not entitled to drink anymore if the server has requested they don't and please, do not give your leftovers to the table next to you. If you bring in your bottle and pay the corkage fee, that is for your table only. Do not share with other guests under any circumstances. If there are leftovers and you are not interested in taking it, give it to the server or ask if you may take it home," Lewis advises.

Conversely, Shulman encouraged sharing in the dining room. "Customers brought in a whole array of everything. We've even had guests bring their own cutting boards, limes, and full margarita kits. Guests have brought in bottles of homemade nocino to share with the dining room. We've had guests batch cocktails and bring enough for everyone in the room to sip on something special with dessert. BYOB is a magical and inspiring spirit."

Tip accordingly.

"Tip 20% on the total bill," says Lewis. "If you are bringing a bottle of wine to a restaurant, it would be good manners to purchase a round of cocktails or after-dinner drinks. If the server served your bottle exceptionally well, then more would always be appreciated," says Lewis.

Be mindful if you're lingering.

"Go find a stoop somewhere!" implores Saritsoglou, bemoaning the times guests have opened a bottle at the end of a meal, making it difficult for his front of house staff to turn the table. "And this is Philly, it doesn't have to be your stoop."

Remember that the privilege of bringing your own is a gift.

"For us to not charge a corkage fee, it's a gift. A 'thank you' for coming in. I want customers to know that behind them bringing a bottle, there's a lot more work for us but we appreciate them coming in," say Thanh and Chris Nguyen, the chef-owner and Strategic Planning Director of Gabriella's Vietnam. "It's why we don't charge a corkage fee. Please just come in and enjoy our food. We want everyone to know the true taste of Vietnam!"

In the same vein, Saritsoglou doesn't have a corkage fee at Stina, "Why would you? I want people to come here and eat!".

What everyone agrees on is that whether you're a customer or the operator of an independent BYOB or the beverage manager of a large hospitality group, bringing your own is and should remain a special experience. Let's keep it that way.

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