My friend and I are led to a table at Helm, a year-old BYO restaurant in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. We sit in the corner by the bookshelf, across from the record player. All the tables are taken—a mashup of couples, friends, and families—and each and every one has a bottle of wine on it. Except for ours. Tonight, we’re drinking beer, and the waiter takes the six-pack to the back to put it on ice. On the wall, I notice a picture with the words “Eat Like A Local” inscribed across it. Painted in and around the letters are various vegetables, no doubt a tribute to the restaurant’s vision of supporting local farmers in Pennsylvania.
But, having grown up here, I know its inclusion in the decor has a double meaning. While Philly certainly has its fair share of celebrity chefs and high-end restaurants, most locals bypass them for neighborhood eateries like this, where the dining room looks and feels like a living room and you can roll up to dinner with a bottle of wine or whiskey or whatever and be taken seriously.
The notion of bringing your own booze to dinner caught steam in Philly in the 1990s when restaurants like Dimitri’s in Queen Village and Audrey Claire in Rittenhouse began putting signs out front encouraging people to BYO to dinner—that is, to “bring your own booze.” The last “B,” omitted in local lingo, is understood, and you’ll hear such restaurants referred to as “BYOs.” As much as it is about customers avoiding a bar bill and the 400 percent markup on wine sold at restaurants, the benefits of the concept go beyond supporting an affordable drinking habit. The whole reason BYOs came about was because restaurateurs were tired of shelling out exorbitant amounts of cash for a liquor license.
Because a liquor license costs more than $120,000 in Philly, the BYO model is crucial to support the opportunities and potential of the city’s aspiring chefs, who may possess the talent but lack the funds to open a restaurant that serves alcohol. This mutually beneficial practice for both the customer and the proprietor has resulted in a scene that has risen from the underground to become the city’s most popular, locally driven dining circuit.
When she first opened the restaurant 20 years ago, Audrey Claire owner Audrey Taichman said she aimed to fill the menu with items that someone could eat two to three times a week. Nothing five star or architectural—just simple food for regular people. Think flatbreads, grilled Caesar salads, mussels, roasted chicken, maple pork chops, and Portobello pasta. Audrey Claire continues to remain true to these original values, but the BYO scene has since evolved to include dozens of restaurants across a wide variety of fare, including Italian, Malaysian, Mexican, Chinese, French, Venezuelan, and Afghan. For example, Helm’s concept uses colorful chalkboard menus and serves contemporary American; Figs in Fairmount puts a Mediterranean spin on Moroccan food.
No matter the shape or size, Philly’s BYOs have one thing in common: They’re filled with everyday people. And yes, you really can show up to dinner with a bottle of booze. Wine, beer, and liquor are all welcomed, and you shouldn’t be shy—you can carry out anything you don’t drink, and no one will judge. (When I was younger and financially strapped, my then-girlfriend and I would shamelessly bring a 1.5-liter bottle of Yellowtail to dinner.) There are no corkage fees or surcharges, but if you’re fancying a cocktail, don’t forget to bring the mixer and garnishes as well. The restaurant will provide the ice and glassware, but you can even go a step further and bring your own formal stemware, especially if you’re enjoying a special bottle of wine (some restaurants, like Audrey Claire, only provide short European-style glasses). If you’d like to drop off a bottle of wine or beer to be chilled or opened ahead of time, almost all BYOs are happy to accommodate. Just give them a call.
As I settle in at Helm, one of the customers gets up and puts on a new record. You’re allowed to do that here, I later learned. I’ve been to a lot of BYOs, and I’ve never seen anything like that. It makes the bond even stronger for me as a local boy, watching the old and the new come together before my eyes. Seeing the bottles of wine on the tables and the people gathered around them throughout the restaurant, a part of me can’t believe it’s real. But I guess that’s Philly for you. A city soaked in blue-collar spirit, where for the locals, bringing your own beats the hell out of a $15 martini.