Taste: Commentary: Say Goodbye to the BYOB

MY FIRST RESTAURANT job was in the kitchen of the much-loved Under the Blue Moon in Chestnut Hill, opened as a BYOB in 1976 by Phyllis and Gene Gosfield, graduates of the first class of the Restaurant School. Blue Moon and many of the other fondly remembered restaurants of that era — like the Gold Standard and Knave of Hearts — were BYOBs, started by counterculture types intent on creating a new way of dining in a city bereft of restaurants, where the best food was often to be had at private clubs.

Thirty years ago, I was an enthusiastic participant in this first Philadelphia Restaurant Renaissance. But today, as our city is experiencing a second restaurant resurgence, I feel like I’m in a time warp as small, imaginative, low-budget storefront BYOBs pop up like dandelions. These demi-restaurants were the right thing for a fledgling restaurant scene, and perhaps necessary given the obstacles presented by the Liquor Control Board, but they represent the entirely wrong direction for our city’s culinary future. It’s time to grow up, Philly.

I know why Philadelphians love BYOBs: You can go out to eat for less, and bring along that really good bottle of wine. Restaurateurs like them because start-up costs are lower and they’re simpler to run, lacking the headaches of building a wine cellar and bar, maintaining stock, training staff and controlling theft. But BYOBs are starter restaurants that just can’t offer the complete dining experience.

I never made it to Django under the original owners. Nor have I been to Pif, Little Fish, Chloe, the Birchrunville Store Cafe or Marigold Kitchen. The hassles of buying wine — what kind to choose, how many bottles to bring, how to transport them, and at what temperature — is too much of a turnoff. Even Aimee Olexy, an original co-owner of Django, one of the first and the most influential of this new generation of BYOBs, agrees that “the product is diminished if someone brings in something lousy to drink with a fantastic meal” in a restaurant without a liquor license.

As a wine lover who’s always interested in learning more, I want to peruse a wine list that’s been artfully chosen to complement the cuisine in flavor, style and price range, with a server who can make a considered wine recommendation and present the choice in appropriate stemware. I like to start my meal with an intriguing house cocktail prepared by an expert bartender — and perhaps enjoy a glass of wine at lunch. Service, too, can be diminished by the lack of a liquor license; waiters depend on wine and cocktail sales for about half their tips, and the most-skilled follow the money.

Worse, Philadelphia is enjoying a new-found nationwide reputation for culinary sophistication, attracting foodies from around the country to Pasión, Vetri, Striped Bass and others. But our BYOBs are known only to locals, who can choose wines from their own cellars without having to search out a State Store just before dinner. This leaves the whole overlong list of chain restaurants that have opened in Philly to attract the average tourist or conventioneer. Maggiano’s, Capital Grille, the Prime Rib, Ruth’s Chris, McCormick & Schmick’s, Davio’s, Smith & Wollensky — they all have liquor licenses.

Philadelphia needs a new generation of world-class, full-service restaurants on a par with Buddakan, Susanna Foo and, of course, Le Bec-Fin — ambitious, independent restaurants opened by restaurateurs with the guts to try to appeal to visitors. Georges Perrier, Neil Stein, Susanna Foo and Stephen Starr were all willing to risk opening restaurants complete with well-stocked bars and wine lists, thus advancing our restaurant scene into national awareness. Where are the dynamic chef-owners and restaurateurs of tomorrow, who will continue to bring this town the culinary accolades it deserves? Unfortunately, they’re playing it safe by opening BYOBs.

Aliza Green is a Philadelphia chef and restaurant consultant and the author of six cookbooks, with two more books in the works. E-mail: mail@phillymag.com