America's Best BYO Restaurants
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!
Kaz AnNou, New York City
Brooklynites love this new French-Caribbean boîte in Prospect Heights for its dinner party atmosphere: owners Sebastien Aubert and Michelle Lane greet every guest and prepare the Guadeloupan entrées (smoked jerk chicken; shrimp and dumplings in a white wine–shallot sauce) themselves.
BYO: A Gewürtztraminer wine pairs well, but for a novel treat, bring a bottle of white rum and ask Aubert to mix up a pitcher of Ti Punch, a traditional cocktail made with rhum blanc, lime juice, and sugarcane.
(53 Sixth Ave., Brooklyn; 718-938-3235; dinner for two $30.)
CafeRossetti’s, Winthrop, MA
Puritan-era laws prohibit BYOB in Boston proper, but the burbs are another matter. Twenty minutes outside city limits is a boisterous oceanfront Italian bistro where the figs come wrapped in razor-thin prosciutto, standards like chicken Marsala are standouts, and the list of pricey Italian vintages is, of course, nonexistent.
BYO: Wine aficionados gather here to pair their favorite Chiantis and Sangioveses with authentic Italian flavors. Reserve ahead on weekends.
(115 Winthrop Shore Dr.; 617-539-9990; dinner for two $50.)
White Tiger Gourmet, Athens, GA
From “Tofu-Q”—that’s vegan barbecue—to wood-smoked pulled-pork sandwiches, the menu here will satisfy casual diners of all stripes. Chef Ken Manring has helmed high-end kitchens across the country, but White Tiger specializes in fresh, down-home fare and attentive, low-key service.
BYO: The restaurant has a BYO policy that invites guests to “bring your own beer, we’ll provide the limes.”
(217 Hiawassee Ave.; 706-353-6847; dinner for two $30.)
D-Street Noshery, Portland, OR
At four-month-old D-Street Noshery, a “pod” of colorful trailers stationed in a repurposed parking lot, you can hit up the food cart of your choice (mac-n-cheese booth, soup spot, pizza joint, and arepaskitchen) and enjoy your fresh-made-to-order lunch in the Noshery’s seating area. Plus, it’s the only Portland pod where liquor is allowed on premises.
BYO: Look for the Captured by Porches Brewery’s beer bus, and order one of three house drafts, $4 to $5.
(321 SE Division St.; 503-753-9167; lunch for two $17.)
Bennachin, New Orleans
Locals don’t flock to the French Quarter’s Bennachin for its excellent service or quick turnover—the pint-size dining room has just four burners. They go for the near-perfect melding of Gambian and Creole culinary traditions, like black-eyed-pea fritters in chunky tomato sauce, beef-and-ground-peanut stew over rice, and African fish jambalaya.
BYO: Come with cash and a bottle (or two) of red wine.
(1212 Royal St.; 504-522-1230; dinner for two $40.)
G’Raj Mahal Café, Austin
Like its home city, G’Raj Mahal revels in its weirdness. The seating process bewilders first-timers (tip: give the waitress your cell number and whet your appetite at a nearby bar until she calls), and the setting—backyard tents strung with Christmas lights and a decked-out trailer-kitchen—hovers between trashy and charming. But there’s nothing weird about the food: tandoor-baked chicken tikka Masala, spicy Goan fish curry, and pillowy naan, all made with local organic ingredients.
BYO: A hoppy Liberation Ale from local Live Oaks Brewing Company.
(91 Red River St.; 512-480-2255; dinner for two $30.)
ThaiX-ing, Washington, D.C.
Few Bangkok street stands could beat the creative concoctions (pumpkin curry with salmon or tofu-lemongrass-cilantro soup, anyone?) of Thailand-born Taw Vigsittaboot’s itty-bitty, eclectically furnished basement café in D.C’s Shaw neighborhood. Call a day ahead with the size and dietary restrictions of your party, and the chef will regale your table with five courses of whatever down-home cooking suits his fancy. Trust us—it’ll suit yours too.
BYO: Spicy food like this calls for a Singha lager or a light Gewürtztraminer wine.
(515 Florida Ave. NW; 202-332-4322; dinner for two $60.)
With a limited number of liquor licenses to go around, Philly is teeming with BYO spots. But not all embrace the policy as gleefully as Lolita, an upscale Midtown Village taberna that not only serves above-average nouvelle-Mexican fare (hazelnut-crusted duck breast with plantains, huitlacoche tamales with peanut mole) but also mixes what’s arguably the city’s best margaritas.
BYO: Pick up a bottle of your favorite tequila, and the restaurant will mix up pitchers of seasonal margaritas, from blood orange–mint to traditional lime-and-guava.
(106 S. 13th St.; 215-546-7100; dinner for two $80.)
Baltimore may not be known for its pizza, but don’t tell the team at Iggies. Here, the most fundamental ingredients come imported from Italy, and the thin-crust pies come topped with unexpected-but-appealing flavor medleys, like roasted duck–blue cheese–asparagus or fennel-olive-orange.
BYO: Though the pizzeria is stalwartly self-serve (and anti-tipping), bring along a bottle of wine, and staff will provide wine openers, glasses, and ice buckets for thirsty BYO diners.
(818 N. Calvert St.; 410-528-0818; dinner for two $25.)
FiveIslands Lobster, Georgetown, ME
The heaping grilled-haddock-and-crab-cake sandwich is as enormous as it is delicious, the lobster rolls are ineffably fresh, and the scenery—rocky shoreline, pine-covered isles, trawling “lobstah”boats—isn’t so bad, either.
BYO: Bring a bottle of a local brew (Geary’s Pale Ale or Allagash White) to enjoy a quintessential Down East summer experience.
(1447 Five Islands Rd.; 207-371-2990; dinner for two $30.)
In Shin Thompson’s hands, canonical French cuisine pops as he infuses classic recipes (scallops baked in the shell; venison sous vide) with unorthodox Japanese flavors (ponzu aioli; soba spaetzle). The chef’s innovative tasting menus have earned Bonsoirée a Michelin star and a devout following in Chicago, where insiders vie for spots at the restaurant’s Saturday “underground” dinners. (Tip: opt for the easier-to-snag midweek reservations.)
BYO: Bring a bottle (or two) of your favorite vintage. Before you go, check the website for wine-pairing recommendations.
(2728 W. Armitage Ave.; 773-486-7511; dinner for two $170.)
RussianDacha Café, Los Angeles
A dacha is a country house, and indeed this hard-to-find hideaway—with its bougainvillea-lined courtyard, long wooden benches, and Eastern European pop soundtrack—feels like it’s miles from congested L.A. Try Georgian kharcho soup (strips of lamb in a cilantro-tinged broth), crispy fried Cornish game hen, and cabbage-and-beef dumplings.
BYO: Take your cue from the convivial Russians at the next table over and make frequent toasts with that bottle of vodka you brought.
(5338 Laurel Canyon Blvd.; 818-509-5828; dinner for two $40.)