Jason Varney

A great dinner for two—for around $100.

Markham Heid
February 05, 2018

Something Philly residents know (but most out-of-towners don’t) is that the city is home to a thriving “bring your own booze” restaurant scene. From upscale establishments to hole-in-the-wall cafes and cantinas, there are more than 300 BYOBs in and around Philly, according to the city’s tourism office. And none of them charges a corkage fee.

If you’re accustomed to paying restaurant prices for alcohol, it’s eye-opening to see just how little a meal costs when you remove all those up-charged glasses of wine and liquor. For around $100—not including whatever you pony up for the booze you bring along—you and a date can feast on some exquisite Philly fare. And you’re not restricted to bringing just wine or beer; hard liquor is allowed. Some spots even sell pre-made mixers for those who want to enjoy a cocktail with their meal.

Another perk to dining at the city’s “BYOs,” as locals call them? Many are tucked away among townhouses in Philly’s residential neighborhoods. Exploring them can take you to corners of the city you’d be unlikely to visit otherwise. Most are also independent, chef-owned enterprises.

Dozens of BYOs could have made this list—including a few that, while exceptional, are on the pricier side. (Bibou and Marigold are two that come to mind.) But if you’re looking for a great place to start your exploration of the city’s fine-dining scene, each of the establishments on this list are a steal.

Helm

Toasted farro gnocchi. smoked clams. romanesco. chervil. fennel.

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This Kensington knockout is a perfect distillation of all that’s great about Philly’s BYO scene. Co-chefs (and owners) Mike Griffiths and Kevin D'Egidio serve adventurous, expertly prepared local delicacies that are at once familiar and totally unexpected. You may have carrots smoked and served with a creamy chevre sauce, or a farro appetizer that will leave you breathless. The intimate, used-bookstore at Helm is also typical of Philly’s BYOs. You won’t want to leave.

Noord

Pork loin, juniper, caraway, thyme

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House-smoked fish and hearty sauces are the stars at South Philly’s Noord, which features North Sea-inspired dishes that draw heavily on Dutch cuisine. Broodjes haring, which are small herring sandwiches garnished with pickled vegetables, and gehaktballen—sirloin meatballs—are just two treats from a menu loaded with unconventional and exciting dishes. While this food could be weighty and ponderous in less-able hands, Chef Joncarl Lachman manages to impart lightness and delicacy to his food.

A Mano

Swordfish | Salmoriglio Fermented Red Pepper Panzanella | Nduja

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In a city with no shortage of first-rate Italian restaurants, this Fairmount gem still manages to stand out. Helmed by Chef Michael Millon, the menu at A Mano changes with the seasons and draws inspiration from all regions of Italy—from the Alps to the Calabrian coast. The pasta dishes are delicate but satisfying, and the vegetables are always fresh and bursting with flavor. All the entrees are memorable, but the meltingly tender pork shank is a highlight. 

Will

Seasonal. Fresh. Local. These are overused terms in the world of American cuisine. But at South Philly’s Will, they’re both appropriate and meaningful. Chef Christopher Kearse’s French-inspired menu changes almost daily, and features the best of what the Delaware Valley has to offer. While the menu is creative enough to grab a diner’s attention, it’s the faultless execution of these dishes that makes Will a destination restaurant.

Perla

Saturday Special! Laing: patty pan, okra, spicy coconut broth, uni espuma

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One of the city’s newest BYOs is also one of its most daring. Located just off of South Philly’s East Passyunk Avenue—where it has plenty of competition, including from several other BYOs on this list—Perla features elevated Filipino cuisine from Chef Lou Boquila. The seven-dish Kamayan “family style” menu—at $40 per person—gives you a broad taste of the flavors and preparations on offer at Perla, and diners are encouraged to eat with their hands (though utensils are available upon request).

Little Fish

Sunday best. 🍛🥂

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This postage stamp-sized seafood spot occupies an unassuming corner of Bella Vista—a neighborhood packed with young families and professionals. Little Fish has room for just 22 diners, and its spare, always-changing menu emphasizes simple, in-season fish and vegetable dishes. Fresh oysters are always on offer, along with a smattering of small bites, apps, and three or four considered, expertly assembled entrees. On Sundays, the a la carte menu is dumped in favor of a five-course chef’s tasting menu, which is consistently excellent.

Umai Umai

You could walk past this Fairmount sushi spot a dozen times without noticing it. But once you find Umai Umai, it’ll have a permanent pin on your culinary map. Chef Alex McCoy delivers fresh, expertly prepared sushi and seafood dishes. But the stand-outs are his designer rolls, which fuse traditional components with unexpected and delightful pairings. They’re small, intricately layered works of art.

Melograno

On a chilly night or after a long day of walking around Rittenhouse Square, the hearty Italian served at Melagrano is exactly what your body craves. But this is no “red sauce” joint. Think pappardelle tossed with fresh wild mushrooms and walnuts. Or the best chicken Milanese you’ve ever had. It’s not the most adventurous restaurant in the city, but its faultless execution and satisfying ingredients bring locals back again and again.  

Pumpkin

Scallops with pine nuts, capers, sunchokes

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This farm-to-table spot was a hit in Philly long before “farm-to-table” was a trend—let alone a cliché. As you would expect, the vegetable-focused dishes are fresh and bursting with flavor. The Butternut Squash soup, when available, is always excellent. But there’s no weak link on this menu. The pork chop is tender and juicy; served with a pumpkin seed puree, it’ll surprise your palette with taste combinations you’ve never had before. The same could be said of many of Pumpkin’s dishes.

Dmitri’s

Any list of Philly BYOs would be incomplete without mention of the spot that started it all. Opened in 1987, Dmitri’s original location on 3rd Street in Queen Village is a cozy Greek restaurant that never ceases to surprise and delight newcomers. While the space is unassuming, the food is dynamic and adroitly prepared. The seafood “platters” are generously portioned but not too heavy. And the octopus is arguably the best in the city.