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RANT: Wine service in Philly BYOBs

Is anyone else like me in that when BYOBing, I insist on opening and pouring my own bottles?

To varying decrees it seems to shock servers when I refuse to let them help me (of course, they should have guessed I'd be a pain-in-the-ass when I showed up with my own glasses!).

It constantly amazes me how poor the wine service is in the BYOB Capital of the World. As in they: 1) Don't know how to pull corks; 2) Don't know how to pour without spilling; 3) Pour too much for the glass; or 4) Pour reds into white glasses and visa versa.

If you don't pay attention, you'll end up with 1/2 a bottle of Champagne in your Cabernet glass before you know it (this just happened to me!), or 50 cork fragments into your old Sauternes! [Yeah, I know, 1st World Problems]

Servers, it's less work for you, and I'll still tip you the same, so please keep your hands off my bottles, s'il vous plait!

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  1. Agree with you, especially on 3. I also don't like the constant topping up. I'll pour more when I'm ready.

    1. And 5) Keeping the bottle(s) on a side table so one has to have a conversation just to get it poured.
      In Europe if you even looked at your bottle, though not BYOB, you would get a smack on the back of your head, but they do get it to you whenever you want it with no grief.

      4 Replies
      1. re: Delucacheesemonger

        >>> And 5) Keeping the bottle(s) on a side table so one has to have a conversation just to get it poured. <<<

        I HATE when they do that!!! The Orchard in Kennett Square is a BYO in my neighborhood that does that -- I find it pretentious and so annoying. They hold all wine bottles, open and unopened, on a side table. Not only do you have to ask for your own wine, you also have to ask to have a second bottle opened when you're switching wines with courses. That's just one of my reasons for rarely going there.

        1. re: CindyJ

          Sometimes it's a product of how cramped the quarters are in these tiny BYOBs. That's why my favorite tables at Bibou are the ones along the window, and second along the side of the restaurant, since you can prop your bottles above you on the window or the ledge.

          1. re: CindyJ

            Have you pushed back, telling your server that you prefer your bottle be kept on your table? Do they capitulate?
            Or, have you said, "if you try to take my bottle and put it on that table, you'll be pulling back a bloody stump?"

            1. re: monavano

              No... admittedly, I was a wuss. A wuss who now dines BYO elsewhere.

        2. Maybe you can give a hint of the places you're talking about. We go, almost exclusively, to BYOB's and find the opposite of your experiences to be the case. The only gripe I have is some of the places use crappy stemware.

          As far as I'm concerned, BYOB's are providing a service for which they receive little or no compensation. Most have decent to good stemware, which breaks, and provide multiple glasses if we're having whites, reds, Champagne or Sauternes. They have to wash and store all that stuff while getting no extra $, as few charge corkage.

          I'm usually quick to open my bottles and the servers are pleasant and understanding. Typically, all goes well when servers open the bottles and pour. Other than warming my bottle of good saki at a sushi restaurant, I'm hard pressed to remember BYOB wine service screw-ups.

          I do agree they want to top the glass too often, but that happens everywhere, especially at places with wine lists. A simple, "No thanks," takes care of it. If they do try to pour into the wrong glass, they're always pleasantly receptive to redirection.

          I've thought of bringing my own stemware, but need something to carry them in. Any recommendations?

          13 Replies
          1. re: george2

            Ah, that's a good one, I forgot about the crappy stems! I guess I'm ok with a red-sauce Italian restaurant in S Philly having crappy little glasses that hold 2 ounces. That's tradition.

            But if you are trying to position your restaurant at a fine dining BYOB (or even non-BYOB), how can you do it was spaghetti-and-meatball glasses? The sophistication of the dining public is rising every year, and more and more people know the difference and care about it. Get some good Guy DeGrenne or Schott Zwiesel restaurant series glasses. They are not very expensive, and pretty strong. Or even get some high-end glasses and keep them in the back for those special bottles of wine that sometimes show up (if you want, charge $10 to use them).

            As far as overhead/labor costs for wine service, that's a red herring argument. Any good business should charge what it takes to make an acceptable profit. If you are loosing money, for whatever reason, charge more or find a business you can make a profit at. Corkage isn't to pay for the labor, it's to compensate for the lost profit when someone doesn't buy off the wine list. Which is why few no-liquor license restaurant charge corkage, whether in PA or elsewhere. Either way, they still have to provide glassware.

            Riedel makes a good bag that holds 5 glasses (at best 3-4 if you are carrying big burg glasses. I've been known to show up with two of them!


            I usually do 3 cab, 1 white, and 1 dessert glass/bag.

            LOL, no hints, to protect the not-so-innocent. But I will say the best wine BYOB wine service tends to be long-standing favorites that all the winos go to, like Blackfish and Bibou (Harold and Hans know their stuff).

            1. re: PhillyBestBYOB

              At all the BYOB's I can think of locally, corkage, at best, covers the cost of buying, replacing, washing and storing stemware. Bibou has no corkage and IIRC not so long ago people were whining about the nominal fee at Blackfish. Even break resistant glasses break with surprising frequency. Ask the owners of any restaurant that uses them.

              If a restaurant sells wine, then corkage is a legitimate way to partially make up for lost revenue.

              The issue you're talking about is service, and your gripe has some legitimacy in some places. Restaurants need to train staff how to open and serve wine. Most give perfunctory instruction. Dealing with a recalcitrant cork is difficult for even some sommeliers, but it is reasonable to expect servers not to spill or over pour.

              Wine and dining out should be fun, regardless of the cost of the bottle, stemware or how upscale the restaurant is. If the server doesn't "know their stuff," so what? If decanting is really important, I filter and decant at home, refill the bottle and replace the cork. Once, at Django, I brought my own decanter, and so can you.

              I know it was tongue-in-cheek when you wrote, " They should have guessed I'd be a pain-in-the-ass when I showed up with my own glasses!", but having worked FOH and BOH, nobody likes a PITA.

              Take a dram of single malt and relax, it's only wine. ;)

              1. re: george2

                Single malt Irish preferably.

                But again, very few BYOBs around Philly charge corkage, which is also true outside of PA. Blackfish is my only regular haunt that does, and it's never really made sense to me ($2 is kinda ridiculous, that can't amount to much money over the course of the evening!).

                Interestingly, I also posted this on Facebook and a hostess at one of the top restaurants in Philly, a BYOB, (formerly from one of the top 5 restaurants in the US and married to a chef), replied back offline that it really is amazing to them how little interest Philly restaurants have in good wine service.

                Although we all get excited to see the occasional praise that Philly gets in the national restaurant press, and it is increasing, the truth is that few people outside think Philly is more than sandwiches and Starr.

                Boston is considered one of the top food cities, but having lived in both places, I think Philly's food scene is MUCH better. But our our biggest sweet spot is BYOBs, and inevitably poor wine service is not going to impress outside reviewers (especially when bringing wine is going to be highlighted as an advantage).

                But even LaBan had to think hard about giving Talula's Table his top rating, despite being BYOB and not having white table clothes. Of course, I've been to Talula's at least a dozen times, and thanks to Amy's interest (she loves a good white burg!), the wine service is always perfect.

                1. re: PhillyBestBYOB

                  "But again, very few BYOBs around Philly charge corkage..."

                  Interesting that you mention Talula's Table -- that's one BYO that does charge corkage -- $25/table. And, given the wine service, worth every penny.

                    1. re: PhillyBestBYOB

                      Or maybe it depends on when you were there. I've only been to Talula's for the Farmhouse dinner one time -- a few years ago (Brian Sikora was still there) and I don't recall a corkage fee. Or maybe my fond memory of the event has erased the memory of the fee.

                      We've been to Talula's many times, bottle in hand, for a weekend afternoon wine & cheese pairing (VERY delightful), and never encountered a corkage fee for that.

                      1. re: CindyJ

                        I think I have a photo or two of the bills (they are so pretty you almost don't mind paying!), so I'll have to look. All my visits have been in the past 3 years.

                        4 chefs, if I'm counting right, over that time frame. I think recently it's really starting to get back to where it was 3 years ago. My last two visits were stellar.

                        1. re: PhillyBestBYOB

                          I know there's been a lot of turnover in the kitchen at TT. Who's at the helm these days?

                              1. re: CindyJ

                                CindyJ .. here is a short story in the Inky on Talulah's and it talks about the chef.

                                He has a long relationship with them going back to the django days. Also has been at Southwark, Gayle and Cafe Estelle though it does not mention in what capacity.


            2. re: george2

              >>> I've thought of bringing my own stemware, but need something to carry them in. Any recommendations? <<<

              Although they're ugly to look at, the wine totes that the PA State Stores sell for about $1 really do work nicely for carrying wine and stemware. There are partitions inside the bag that can be used for separating multiple bottles or stems.

            3. It depends. At "finer dining" restaurants, I'm usually okay with having the server uncork and pour the first glass. The rest I'll pour for myself, thank-you-very-much. But at the neighborhood places that are very casual and more downscale, the servers are often young and not trained to uncork and pour wine. That's when we bring our own corkscrew and (yes...) sometimes even our own stemware.

              We were out last night at a nearby Italian restaurant that's become one of our favorite BYOs. The server uncorked our bottle, then asked whether we'd like it poured right away or did we want it to sit for a bit. When she did pour it, she poured just a little more than a "tasting" amount in each of our glasses. For me, that's just the kind of BYO service I want.

              1. A snarky comment.. if you want good wine service go to a place that actually makes money on providing the service.

                Especially if you are not paying a corkage fee, the cost of stemware, of training staff, etc really does nothing but eat into the restaurant's profits.

                You give up something when you bring your own wine for free... you cannot have your chateaux lafite rosthchild and drink it too...

                3 Replies
                1. re: cwdonald

                  As I said, corkage has nothing to do with service, it has to do with compensation for loss of wine sales. Restaurants include labor & overhead in what they charge for food, and that includes glasses, breakage and dishwashing. That is why it is rare for restaurants anywhere in the world to charge corkage when they don't have an alcohol license.

                  If I want good wine service, I'll go to a restaurant that provides it, obviously. That has nothing to do with corkage.

                  1. re: PhillyBestBYOB

                    BS corkage pays for stemware. And the corkage fee has no relationship to the amount of money that is lost due to not having a liquor license. And byos with no corkage fees do not have higher prices than those that do. There are plenty of examples of restaurants, especially the suburbs that charge corkage.

                    Reality is, if you are bringing something for free, the restaurant owes you nothing.

                    1. re: cwdonald

                      cw, my guess is you are speaking for a base of knowledge on this subject. I have no idea what corkage pays for or does not. However, wether it be lost revenue, labor, cost of glassware or all the afore and more the customer should expect a related charge. If the restaurant is handling the bottle (which is their choice), fee or not, they should provide a basic level of service, what ever that might be. But at very least "first do no harm".

                2. Since I'm on a roll, wouldn't it be great if restaurants had more than 2 decanters for the whole restaurant, and enough space on the tables for all my @#$A%?

                  I can dream...

                  1. Off topic, but if any Philly restaurants are reading this, they should get one of these. I BYOB at least twice a week on average, and a month doesn't go by without servers breaking 1 or 2 corks while trying to extract them. This gizmo completely prevents that (I've only ever lost one cork over the past 2 years using it, and that was because I wasn't paying attention).


                    It's completely MAGIC for older wines (I'll use it for anything older than 10-12 years, since cork breakage starts to shoot up beginning around that age).

                    I know Charlotte at Bibou bought one of these when she saw mine. It's only a little more work than the standard Pulltap, but it never fails.

                    The only problem is that now my friends expect me to open all the bottles at the table.

                    Maybe I should charge corkage...

                    1. Interesting question, and I'm not in Philly but do alot of BYOB. I've never had a problem with a server opening a bottle... catch that I did once with an old rhone bottle in florida that had a partially-deteriorated cork, but anyone would have had trouble with that, the server managed it better than I would have.

                      As for pouring the wine, that depends on how the dinner is set up. If I have several friends and we're doing a many-bottle tasting in a certain order, then I'll just ask them to leave the bottle on the table and we'll handle it. If it's just a bottle or two then I don't have a problem with them doing the first pour or even subsequent pours as long as they are attentive. In general I like to "pour my own" when I want but the attentive service is nice too.

                      Overall I think most venues look at a BYOB just as they would an in-house bottle: we open it, we pour it, we serve you, and we charge a corkage for it. Which raises the question if they "can't pull corks, pour without spilling or overpour", do they do that with BOTH their in-house and BYOB bottles?

                      ....Then there are the other extremes like Sripraphai in NYC, they used to just hand you the corkscrew, not sure if that's changed since they instituted a corkage fee. Depending on the venue, I think some owners just wouldn't want to hand the corkscrew to a diner for a variety of reasons.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: TombstoneShadow

                        I'm probably notice this more than most because we bring a high percentage of aged bottles, say pre-2000. Obviously the farther back you go in time, the rate of trouble goes up. The vast majority of the wine brought to BYOBs in Philly is surely post-2007 or something, so most servers won't have much practice (they probably won't even notice the date).

                        I've learned to keep the really old stuff right in front of me. Otherwise I get to chatting and miss the chance to waylay the waiter or somm before they try to do their duty!

                        No matter how good the waiter is, if they don't have a Durand, I won't let them touch something from the 70s or 80s.

                        1. re: PhillyBestBYOB

                          The good news it looks like Philly has a real active BYOB culture and alot of BYOB-friendly venues.

                      2. I'll add another thing that weirds me out/annoys me on BYOB wine service, although it seems to be more common in South Jersey BYOBs than in Philly: restaurants that take your bottle to uncork them somewhere "off stage" where you can't see them do it. Augh! I hate that and it makes me so nervous, like...what? They don't want me to see if they break the cork? Their wait staff has no idea how to uncork a bottle and has to bring it to someone in the back room to do it?

                        I've had a few bad experiences in the past year that yeah, make me save my good wine for home dining at this point. Like the well-touted Collingswood BYOB where I brought a special bottle for my birthday, and the server broke the cork off quickly in the bottle only then to pause, look at the label, gulp and say "Oh, this is an old bottle, isn't it?"

                        *gnashes teeth*

                        And to reply to those snarking about how you shouldn't expect good wine service in a BYOB, well...some of us live in area towns where ALL restaurants are BYOBS, and just don't always feel like a longer trek for a nice dinner out...with good attention to the wine diners wish to enjoy.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: sockii

                          I can see how a waiter could get nervous opening wines in front of the customers if they are not well practiced. It would make me nervous too.

                          They are probably staring at the moldy cork saying, "Please God, please let it come out in one piece so I can get a good tip!"

                        2. Wow, Philly servers must need a lot more training in BYOB than those we deal with in SoChesCo. We're generally happy with the service. But we tend to take <$20 bottles of wine. Though the menu prices are in the appropriate range, and the servers generally do just fine.

                          1. Another place with very good wine service, although not BYOB (or at least not without corkage, I don't know for sure) is Bar Savona in Gulph Mills (or wherever it is, since GPSs don't like it). Was there tonight, and I'm constantly amazed at how little press it gets. Very good Italian, and an outstanding wine list. And the aforementioned perfect wine service--I can't imagine them ever breaking a cork or spilling a drop.