The Rise of BYOB

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On most summer nights a long line of dinner goers can be found on the corner of West 11th and West 4th Streets, waiting for an open table at Tartine, a petit café in Manhattan's West Village. The restaurant, which opened in 1989, can accurately be described as either cozy or cramped, and the food--standard French bistro fare--is nothing special. Why then the crowds? I offer my own reason for returning and the hunch that it's also what brings everyone else: Diners are allowed to bring their own booze, free of charge.

For my money, there's not a more savory initialism in the culinary lexicon than BYOB--Bring Your Own Bottle--and it's a pity that more restaurants don't adopt the policy. But then why would they? Price gauging on booze is the industry standard, and an easy way to drive the bottom line. It's why, for instance, The Spotted Pig, another West Village restaurant (which I like), charges $75 for a half-bottle of 2005 Chateau Gloria, a red Bordeaux which retails for $40 per full bottle.

It's not only in recessionary times like these that BYOBs can thrive.

That's nearly a 300 percent markup--more if you consider restaurants don't pay retail prices--and it's no anomaly. (To those, typically on the restaurant side, who justify such markups for storage, care, stemware and sommeliers, I can only say, Phooey! And yes, there are markups on beer and liquor, too, but wine, which typically is more expensive, introduces different price sensitivities.)

There are 35 BYOB restaurants in New York City listed in the 2009 Zagat Guide. They tend to be small, ethnic and unambitious. And while there are a few upscale exceptions--Apiary and Tribecca Grill offer BYOB on Monday nights, and Alto has waived its $60 corkage fee until September, with a limit of one outside bottle per table--these restaurants are only making temporary concessions during a time of economic distress, doing what they can to lure budget-conscious diners.

But most restaurants have maintained corkage fees to discourage diners from bringing their own wine. And some ban outside wine altogether: According to The New York Times , only wine critic Robert Parker is allowed to bring his own bottles to Daniel, a Michelin two-star French restaurant on the Upper East Side. More ominously, the New York State Liquor Authority recently announced that many of the state's BYOBs are operating without the proper licenses, risking fines or closure. (Thankfully, there seems to have been little subsequent enforcement of these codes.)

Fortunately, it's only a two-hour drive south to the nation's BYOB Mecca--Philadelphia. When I lived there, for a year in the late 90's, there were a handful. Now, there are more than 200, a fact touted in the Greater Tourism Philadelphia Market Corporation's brochures: "Welcome to Philadelphia, the place to b.y.o.be !"

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Paul Wachter is a writer based in New York and the co-founder of AgainstDumb.com. He has written for The New York Times MagazineThe Nation, and Eight by Eight.

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