Restaurant-Goers Bring Their Own Wine

Michelin-rated restaurants allow their customers to bring their own bottles.

ByCATHERINE CLOUTIER
June 22, 2010, 12:06 PM

LONDON, June 24, 2010 -- The term BYOB is synonymous with backyard cookouts and casual dinner parties. But in London, it can now be found in 3-star dining rooms.

Several of the best restaurants in the city, including some that are Michelin-rated, have opened their doors and lending their corkscrews to a new type of clientele: wine connoisseurs on a budget.

Wine mark-ups in London restaurants are quite high. A bottle, which can be purchased from a wine store at $75, can cost upwards of $225 at a restaurant. With BYO offerings, restaurant-goers can enjoy food crafted by celebrity chefs while saving money on wine.

"BYO (Bring Your Own) is about people who are serious food and wine lovers but who recognize that they can't go to a restaurant where the food costs £50 (about $75) a person and afford a bottle of wine," said wine writer Tom Cannavan.

Cannavan, who publishes wine-pages.com, said the BYO movement in upscale restaurants is, in part, triggered by the current recession. Restaurants are increasingly interested in the BYO concept, an effort to lure Londoners who are tending to forgo meals out for those purchased in supermarkets, he said.

"For us, it's about bringing people into our restaurant," said Will Smith, the owner of restaurants Arbutus and Wild Honey. "Generally, a restaurant thrives on word of mouth and being consistent. It's about building a relationship with their guests."

A bottle of wine costs an average of $40 to $75 at Arbutus. At Wild Honey, that average ranges from $60 to $120. With BYO Wine Club membership, guests can enjoy a bottle of a similar quality for a corkage fee of around $20 for still wine and $30 for sparkling wine.

The corkage fee, Smith explained, is "to get some sort of revenue through the door."

The BYO movement is not completely new to the United Kingdom, as several curry houses or inexpensive restaurants lacking liquor licenses often offered the service.

"Traditionally in this country, BYO has always been about attracting people who want to eat and drink on the cheap," said Cannavan.

Wine Connoisseurs on a Budget

But with the introduction of BYO in upscale restaurants, the typical BYO-er is changing.

A couple years ago Khadine Johnson-Rose wanted to bring a bottle of 1976 Chateau Talbot to a dinner celebrating a retirement. After dozens of phone calls and some exorbitant corkage fees, Johnson-Rose settled upon a restaurant offering a fee around $35.

"It wasn't the kind of restaurant that we would've wanted to go to on that occasion," Johnson-Rose said. "I just thought, why should we have to pay these incredible fees?"

A year-and-a-half later, Johnson-Rose and her husband Christopher launched the BYO Wine Club, which grants members the opportunities to dine at 50 upscale restaurants in London -- among them Club Gascon, L'Autre Pied, and Aubergine -- and bring their own bottles with minimal corkage fees.

"It's about letting people experience having a fabulous meal with their own wine," said Johnson-Rose. "And someone else has to do the dishes."

Club membership costs just under $150 (£100), a price that Johnson-Rose said distinguishes the true wine lover from the spend thrift.

"It's a niche market," she said. "There are a lot of people in the U.K. who are very passionate about wine."

Since the club's launch in mid-June, Johnson-Rose said the phone lines have been "very, very busy."

So busy, in fact, that she's considering expanding the business to the United States. She indicated that there has been interest in New York and Boston. Unfortunately, state-regulated liquor laws may make the transition difficult.

New York City has only 35 BYO restaurants listed in 2009 Zagat Guide, most of them small or ethnic establishments.

The Atlantic reported that Philadelphia is a haven for BYO restaurants, mainly due to liquor license regulations. The City of Brotherly Love boasts more than 200 BYO-friendly places.

A Mutually Beneficial Relationship

Johnson-Rose hopes to increase those numbers. The goal of the BYO Wine Club is to attract restaurants that do not currently allow BYO and offer them a mutually beneficial relationship.

"It's hard to see outside the box and see BYO not as a discount but a way of promoting your restaurant," Johnson-Rose said.

And, Cannavan added, it's a good way to sample new wines.

"I've done it in London, Glasgow and Edinburgh. I bring a bottle of wine that isn't on the wine list, always explain what I'm doing and, if the server or manager is interested in wines, offer a taste," Cannavan said.

"It creates a good environment in the restaurant."

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