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BYOB Ranting

[Full disclosure: I am going to Matyson tonight, so this will be extremely heavy with double standards.]

I love that we live in probably the best BYOB city in the country, but I have noticed a distressing trend. I can't think of a single decent BYOB that is reasonably priced. Are there any decent places that offer $12-15 pastas and $15-20 entrees?

I recognize that since they aren't making any money on the booze, they have to bump their yields on food, and that the better spots are offering some of the best food in the city and not making you pay a 2x markup on drinks. But I am dreaming of a place that offers simple, well-prepared food at a reasonable price. Does anyone know of such a magical place, or am I being naive to think that it would be sustainable? It's to the point that I have even started going to non-BYOB's (a formerly absurd thought) because I just don't feel the value is there anymore.

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  1. >Are there any decent places that offer $12-15 pastas and $15-20 entrees?

    Roberto Cafe? La Baia? Novita?

    And do let me know what very good (not talking South Philly Red Gravy) non-BYOBs you know of that offer $12-15 pastas and $15-20 entrees, because I'm drawing a blank on that. I haven't noticed BYOBs marking up the food any higher than places with liquor licenses. Indeed, I find I tend to have to spend much more at a lot of Philly's non-BYOBs, not even counting alcohol, with the "small plates" trend being so much the fad right now (small plates = having to order more dishes for a full meal = much higher tab at the end of the night.)

    The only issue I find with a lot of the BYOBs is that they're not good places to linger, because the restaurants obviously want/need to turn over tables to make a profit.

    2 Replies
    1. re: sockii

      Bistro La Baia is a great one. I always forget about it, but it's great: you're never disappointed and it's very reasonable cost.

      I haven't tried the others and will give them a whirl. It's nice to try something new, and any friend of Baia is a friend of mine.

      Not to play right into your least favorite part of the city, but I'm actually trying to come up with a good recommendation for a place for tapas/small plates for a bachelorette party of 15 or so. This is probably a suicide mission, but I am trying to help come up with something that will not be priced out the door (i.e. prefer to skip Amada if possible) but still have a bit of a "scene".

      1. re: tfalbo

        Bar Ferdinand has a $40 Prix Fixe that is good for groups. There's definitely a fun scene there and the whole neighborhood. I did the $40 option with a group there recently; it was very well executed and a great time, but the food quality was a clear step down (or more) from the Amada $45 tasting menu. They may give a bit more food. I'm not sure how wine/drink prices compare, maybe that could save a good bit a money.

    2. I haven't been there in a year or so, but I've enjoyed La Viola (or La Viola Oest) several times in the past, and I don't recall anything on the menu being over $15. It's not the most relaxing space (although I think the Oest version is better for that), nor is it revolutionary, but I've had some really good meals there and I'm always surprised by just how affordable it is.

      6 Replies
      1. re: PhillyA

        I second the La Viola/ La Viola Oest suggestion. And they take reservations.

        1. re: mmgth

          I had just been to la viola oest last night for dinner after reading about it on here, and I was pleasantly suprised with my meal. We ordered the calamari/shrimp appetizer which was excellent, and I had the seafood pasta (linguini w/shrimp, calamari, clams, salmon, and mussels) while my wife had the shrimp and mushroom risotto. She wasn't too thrilled with her meal, stating her shrimp was too salty, but I thought it was seasoned nicely. Mine was cooked perfectly.

          My only gripe with them was pretty petty, in that I couldn't understand any of the servers there, especially with all the noise that was in the room (you guys never lied). We both were thinking they were all Russians with their thick accents, but not too sure. Can any chowhounds verify??

          Overall, not a bad dinner. The place was packed, and there were 2 tables of 6-8 UPenn kids behind us getting sloshed off of White Zin, but they came towards the end of the night. I would definitely suggest this place again.

          Are there any other places like this in the city (modest priced BYOB)? Just trying to find a place for our monthly date nights where we can take a lesurely stroll after our meal.

          1. re: paychecktoday

            Mr. Martino's Trattoria is a good, inexpensive BYOB that I haven't seen mentioned yet, and the atmosphere is perfect for a date.

            1. re: Buckethead

              I like their menu, how is the neighborhood down there, and is it suitable to stroll down there?

              1. re: paychecktoday

                The neighborhood is great, Passyunk east of Broad is fine pretty much all the way up and down, and the blocks around Mr. Martino's are the nicest ones. There's a Capogiro on the same block if you want dessert (though I do like Mr. Martino's lemon tart), and quite a few other great restaurants (Le Virtu and Fond are my favorites on the avenue, Izumi is very good too, and the latter two are BYO) if you want to browse some menus for your next visit down that way.

            2. re: paychecktoday

              The owners of la Viola are from Albania. I would imagine that most of their staff is Albanian as well. I work with an Albanian who has eaten there which is how I know this. The accent can be a little challenging, but it's quite different from a Russian accent.

        2. I hear you but....
          Matyson, Kanella, Bibou - these places are spectacular and to get out of them for a little more than $100 with tax and tip for two people is awesome.
          As a former New Yorker subject to ridiculously expensive overhyped restaurants, it is hard to argue with that type of quality (and service) for the price

          2 Replies
          1. re: FattyFatMan

            Just had a fantastic meal at Solento at 22nd & Walnut. All entrees I think were under $20 and perfectly portioned. We did use a groupon, but before the coupon, a dinner for 2 (2 apps, 1 pasta, 1 entree, 2 cappucinos) was under $60 pre tax & tip. I'm also looking forward to Salt & Pepper opening on Passyunk Ave (my hood) - or at least that's the rumor. If memory serves, they are quite reasonable as well. Whenever I read about people's tabs, I figure they must order a lot more food than I do because my tab is always less. I can't eat 3 courses by myself without walking out of there with a stomach ache. And the days of having more than 2 drinks at a sitting are over too. So maybe the way to keep the bill down is to just get older!

            PS, you can do better money wise if you leave center city and hit the fringe neighborhoods. They have fantastic value and great food.

            1. re: BelgianBeerMistress

              Salento is awesome, I can't wait to have a chance to go back. The amount and quality of food I enjoyed there for the price was ridiculous.

          2. Lots. Consider that non byo places like Fish charge as much as Matyson and Bibou. The issue is that these are top rated places.

            Try -
            La Locanda del ....
            Modo mio

            1. We got out of Lolita pretty inexpensively.

              The markup on booze is muuuuch more than X2. Hard alcohol is usually marked up 20X, wine btg 4X and wine by the bottle 3X. Alcohol really is a huge profit-maker for restaurants. Huge.

              1. I know exactly what you mean. I would like to find a BYOB where I can go with a group of 5 and relax with a couple bottles of wine AND good food!

                1 Reply
                1. re: littlecmad

                  We love August, at 13th and Wharton. Wonderful atmosphere, and the food is delicious.
                  I'll post soon about celebrating my birthday there.

                2. I haven't been there in a good while, and am now really missing it, Radicchio, on 4th and Wood. I always got a great meal, decent price. Must go back.

                    1. re: Tir_na_nOg

                      +1, with full 4 course dinner at $ 33, with coffee, tax and tip a couple walks out at 85-90

                    2. You might find that there are quite a few neighborhood places that don't specifically advertise that they're BYO even though they are. Many local Italian/pizza places don't have liquor licenses, have more-than-decent food, and don't care if you bring your own wine. The one problem you might have in such places (if you care about such things) is the quality of the stemware. The same holds true for many local Asian restaurants. Phone ahead if you're not sure, but it's been my experience here in Chester County that there are many reasonably prices restaurants that are de facto BYO.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: CindyJ

                        Re: de facto BYOBs...I've taken beer to Taco Riendo, and have seen others do the same. Wine, not so much, but that shouldn't stop anyone.

                        1. re: croutonpiggy

                          We used to bring beer to our favorite local Mexican place, too, and so did just about everyone else there. Then they moved and got a liquor license. Most of the other local Mexican places in this area are still BYO, although they rarely advertise it.

                      2. I've stopped going to BYOB's for exactly that reason.

                        20 Replies
                        1. re: Carolyn33

                          Does that mean you'd rather pay 3X more for a bottle of wine off a wine list than a few dollars more for an entree? I take a completely opposite approach. I HATE spending $60-75 for a bottle of wine in a restaurant when I know I can buy a better bottle for $20-25 (or less). Not only that, countless are the times that I HAVE plunked down that much (or more) for a bottle, only to have it served at the wrong temperature. That REALLY bugs me! At least when I bring my own, I know it's been properly stored.

                            1. re: CindyJ

                              I'm in New Jersey.....while I enjoy a little red wine...it's not necessary for me to have to enjoy my meal. I can live with a bottle of water instead......but before, during or after....I like distilled spirits, so BYOB really isn't an option. Many BYOBs tend to be heavy on white....as in potatoes, pasta and rice to fluff up the plate. I don't particularly find any value in that....and why I rarely go to BYOBs.

                              1. re: fourunder

                                I didn't know that BYOB excluded spirits. I KNOW you can bring your own beer. Why not any other alcoholic beverage?

                                1. re: CindyJ

                                  Simply, that's the way the law is written....

                                  In NJ, BYOB is Beer and Wine Only....No distilled spirits or cordials are allowed by statute.....however, that's not to say I have never brought in a bottle of vodka or a cordial for an after dinner drink.....but the action is illegal. It is also illegal to advertise that you are a BYOB restaurant.

                                  Here's another weird fact of NJ Liquor Laws....which I believe is still true. Although a restaurant does not have a liquor license, they can still sell wine.....the exception, or stipulation being the wine must be produced and purchased from a New Jersey Winery. This exception allows only to wine sales and not beer...even though there is an Anheuser-Busch plant in state.

                                  To be honest, it's not unusual for a BYOB owner not to have a bottle of wine or some beer on premise for their best customers....or a bottle of Sambuca for shot with espresso or coffee for dessert....again technically illegal. How the restaurants get away with it is a matter of enforcement. The customer receiving the benefit is unlikely to turn in the offender...as they are not being charged. With regard to the distilled spirits...the restaurant would have to turn in the customer or refuse to serve them....which obviously would not be good for sales

                                  The problem for me with beer is the same problem white wine drinkers have with proper temperature for serving. It's hard to find restaurants willing to give you ice set-ups to keep the beer cold....and it's a rare occurrence when they offer to keep it in their refrigerator for you.....but when they do, it's tough to get a servers attention to bring you a bottle when you need one, as they are busy doing other restaurant duties....so their service is not as prompt as it would be in a full service/licensed restaurant, where drink service increases the check average which has more direct relation and impact for gratuities.

                                  1. re: fourunder

                                    I find these liquor laws -- in both PA and NJ -- arcane. Sometimes I wonder if they're written to deliberately confuse the customer. I don't think there are any limitations to what you can or cannot bring to a BYO in PA. There have been several times when we've brought after-dinner cordials or brandy in addition to wine. Interesting, too, that in NJ restaurants are not allowed to advertise that they're BYO. I didn't know that. OTOH, I HAVE been in liquor/wine stores in NJ (one in Lambertville comes to mind, and another in Stockton) where the wine shop has lists of the BYO restaurants in town.

                                    There's an easy fix to your beer-kept-cold dilemma -- bring your beer in an ice-filled cooler. We've done that at BYO Mexican restaurants with beer and margarita fixin's. In fact, I think most folks who bring beer do bring it in some kind of cooler.

                                    It's not at all unusual here in PA for a BYO restaurant to offer customers a complimentary drink -- a glass of wine, or a mixed drink. In fact, I was at a local restaurant for dinner this past Sunday, and they were serving pear belinis to everyone. I think here in PA, the legal technicality has everything to do with SELLING the alcohol. That means they can serve it, and they can give it away, but they can't charge for it.

                              2. re: CindyJ

                                Right on re your earlier post CindyJ!

                                1. re: JanR

                                  As the originator of this line of discussion, I should say, even though it completely counters my original post, I also agree wholeheartedly with CindyJ. The main thrust of my point, though expressed poorly, was based on a trip to Amis. Neither my fiance nor I are heavy drinkers, and I was really amazed to see that my bill there, including a coule of glasses of wine, was actually cheaper than many of the BYO's that we visit.

                                  I guess I was so amazed by that I felt the need to rant a bit. We have since incorporated non-BYO's into our stable of frequently visited places in that spirit (and frankly, looking back, not going to places where I had to pay for wind was really pretty silly). I was formerly very single-minded that if I couldn't bring my own booze, I wasn't all that interested.

                                  1. re: tfalbo

                                    Yeah... I don't go to places where I have to pay for wind, either! :-) Just kidding -- couldn't resist!

                                    1. re: tfalbo

                                      I must not have eaten at the same Amis as you...

                                      1. re: barryg


                                        I can regularly and easily get out of a Philly BYOB for $80-100 before tip, enjoying 2 apps, 2 entrees and a shared dessert + coffee. 2 visits to Amis were both in the $130-150 range before tip, as much as I enjoyed them. Was definitely a "event" dining experience given the price to enjoy the food & wine my SO and I like to enjoy for a meal out.

                                        1. re: barryg

                                          Ditto. That place cost me about $150 for two; most BYOs (Kanella, Little Fish, Koo Zee Doo...) run me about $110, including my $20 bottle.

                                        2. re: tfalbo

                                          Personally, I find it's more common for entrees to actually be priced less at full service restaurants than BYOBs from my experiences....Here in Northern New Jersey, most of the BYOBs, especially Italian restaurants, give you a pound of pasta and little substance (protein). Middle Eastern fare is not as guilty when it comes to the starch.

                                          BYOBs realize they will most likely not be getting any beverage sales at all....so it seems to me they factor that into their pricing....and charge higher for entrees. I've been to my share of BYOBs where dinner for two has exceeded $75.......I have been to many full service restaurants where it has not.

                                          1. re: fourunder

                                            We're talking about Philly, where there are plenty of top-notch BYOs where entrees are $20+, BYO Italian places where pastas are ~$15, and hole-in-the-wall taquerias and Chinatown spots where you'd be hard-pressed to spend over $30 for 2 people. And you can find outstanding food at any of these price points. All while getting to bring your own wine (whether you spent $2 or $200 a bottle), beer, or liquor (places like Bindi and Lolita encourage you to bring tequila, rum, or vodka).
                                            It's hard to believe anyone can complain about this. Having recently moved away from the city, there's probably nothing that I miss more than the BYOs.

                                          2. re: tfalbo

                                            I understand where you are coming from tfalbo. I am a non-drinking vegetarian (i.e. a cheap date) so for us eating at a BYOB versus a non-BYOB that has a decent by-the-glass selection usually yields a similar bill, since my boyfriend's couple of beers/wine generally total about what a decent bottle would have cost us from the liquor store. I realize we have unique circumstances, but I do think it is fair to recognize that alcohol consumption habits (i.e. one's personal preferences towards certain qualities and quantities of alcoholic beverages while dining out) make BYOBs more cost-saving to some than others. My parents like great wine and love taking multiple bottles of wine (sometimes a white, red, and sparkling) to a BYOB. Obviously if it is just the two of them they don't finish all of the wines, but it allows them the opportunity to drink the specific kind of wine they want with each course of their meal, while saving a lot of money (they might buy each bottle for $15-$25 at the liquor store but would have spent over $50 per bottle if purchased from the restaurant).

                                            1. re: Laura D.

                                              Agree. I think that if you're like tfalbo, and just have a couple cheap glasses of wine, BYOs are probably not particulary economical versus a normal restaurant.

                                              If you're like me and many of my acquaintences, the bar bill is always higher than the food bill exponentially. Hell, my wine bill alone is usually in the hundreds if I'm out for a nice dinner (my husband only drinks wine to placate me: he's a beer/cocktail guy).
                                              The 1996 Barolo, for example, that I bring in would fetch over $700 at a restaurant. I paid muuuuch less than that for it, and aged it myself, so I know it's been properly stored. That's a win-win for me.

                                              1. re: invinotheresverde

                                                Oooooh! If you're heading to a BYO with your '96 Barolo, I'll be happy to meet you there and help you enjoy it. I'll even bring some good beer to keep your husband happy.

                                                1. re: CindyJ

                                                  I will look you up next time I'm in Philly (probably this summer). ;)

                                    2. Check out the James Beard awards semifinalists 2011. 4 of the 5 best chef MidAtlantic nominees from Phila. and area are chefs at BYOBs as well as the best rising chef nominee. Phila.'s best restaurants have full service bars making them unaffordable for me and a lot of other diners wanting alcohol options. Even with food prices slightly highter the value is definitely there at many BYOBs.

                                      1. Excellent thread everyone. Very informative, learn how much I did not know about the Philly BYOB scene. Thanks