Browse the website of Chicago’s Michelin star–winning Bonsoirée and you’ll find not only the multicourse menu, but also recommended wines to pair with your meal. Why the digital wine list? Because there’s none at the restaurant—if you want to imbibe, you have to bring your own bottles.
Bonsoirée is just one of the rising number of restaurants that have skipped the sommelier in favor of a policy that’s strictly self-serve. And many of these hot spots have great food, atmosphere, and service—all qualifiers for our list of America’s best BYO restaurants.
Aside from the inherent money-saving advantage of BYO (these restaurants don’t even charge a corkage fee), it’s also a boon for connoisseurs, who often find wine lists limited. “It’s a great way for collectors to enjoy bottles they may have had in the cellar for 10 or 15 years,” says Ray Isle, wine editor at Food & Wine magazine. “I love BYO.”
If it sounds like a sweet deal, you’re in luck: BYO restaurants are on the rise. According to Devon Perry of GoBYO.com, the number of “wine-friendly” restaurants in U.S. metropolitan centers has exploded since the company began counting two years ago. In the first two quarters of 2009 alone, New York City’s BYO spots increased by 19 percent (from 2,916 to 3,479) and Greater Boston’s by 22 percent (from 268 to 327).
Perry attributes the trend to the recession. “Typically we say that the wine market consists of those who ‘like to save’ and those who ‘like to savor.’ But in this economy, those groups are starting to overlap. Paying the 200 or 300 percent markup of a wine list just doesn’t appeal.”
The arrangement also benefits restaurateurs by eliminating the hassle and (often significant) cost of a liquor license. Plus, with the lower dinner-ticket totals that BYO entails, it generally becomes a strong selling point for the restaurant.
“We’ll never purchase a liquor license,” says Lisa Heckman of Iggies Pizza, a gourmet pizzeria in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood. “BYO only adds to the dining experience—we even provide ice buckets, wine keys, and glassware.”
And BYO isn’t just for oenophiles anymore. At Brooklyn’s Kaz An Nou, for example, diners who come with Caribbean white rum can get it mixed into a traditional Ti Punch.
So whether you’re a frugalista who loves dining or a connoisseur with an impressive private collection, you’ll enjoy our picks for America’s best BYO restaurants. Bottoms up!