­Taste: Grape-Onomics

With people eating out less and less, our beloved BYOs are doing anything they can to stay alive

Over the past decade, an explosion in chef–driven BYOs has dramatically altered the way Philadelphians eat and drink. We now have the option of eating top-notch food while keeping our booze costs low. We can savor slow-braised short ribs at bistro Cochon and bring along a fine wine that costs less than $30, or head to Parc for similar eats and enjoy the same bottle, in a livelier atmosphere, at twice the price. In this economy, one would think the consumer-friendly BYO model would flourish, but a few restaurants, surprisingly, have decided to switch their status — acquiring licenses and crafting small, appealing wine lists. As all restaurateurs face a dwindling number of diners, is shelling out around $65,000 for a license the key to survival?

Alba, in Malvern, a BYOB for about four years, recently got a liquor license and started an all-Italian wine list. “It got to the point where the economic realities of being a BYOB were difficult,” says Alba chef/owner Sean Weinberg, who saw a drop in the number of people walking through his door. “We felt we needed to offer wine, both to complete the dining experience and to help on margins.” It might be a wise move. Mémé opened as a BYOB in September 2008 and could have logically continued that way (it inhabits the BYO-friendly former space of Melograno), but instead now sells wine and beer. While owner David Katz says he never planned on being a BYO (“I always wanted wine to be part of what I do”), the change has helped his bottom line: Since getting his license in January, he reports, he’s serving the same number of dinners, but the average check has jumped from $31 to $43.

It’s a tough decision to make, though, because you don’t want to cannibalize your BYO-loving neighborhood clientele. Which is why, so far, caution is apparent. Owners are keeping price points on food low, and selling wine at a good value, marking bottles up at less than double their cost, where steakhouses and fine dining establishments often triple prices. And some recently converted BYOs are hedging their bets by allowing guests to continue to tote their own bottles for a modest $5-to-$10 corkage fee.

On the other hand, some restaurants, including Gayle, Daniel Stern’s highly regarded eatery on 3rd near Bainbridge, are following more conventional wisdom. Gayle just went the other route, shelving its liquor license and changing to BYO status. “People are more price-conscious now — they want to be able to save money,” says Ryan Davis, Gayle’s beverage director. Which may be the reason I’ll be heading to Gayle soon for a superb $38 steak entrée paired with my $22 bottle of 1999 Château Tour Pibran Pauillac. Now that’s a bargain.