On any given night in Philadelphia, people heading out to dinner take a look in their fridges, basements and backyards, select a bottle of wine, a tallboy IPA or homemade limoncello, and tote it along to the restaurant. In the Philadelphia metro area, there are roughly 300 BYOBs.
Since the 1990s, the BYOB has been one of the defining features of Philly’s dining scene, born of necessity. Before the city’s restaurants sell so much as a shot of fernet or Fireball, they must jump through a series of increasingly complicated hoops: acquire a liquor license that costs about as much as a Lamborghini, stock the bar (mostly) through the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board system, deal with this state-run monopoly’s rapacious prices, and determine how to compensate for the mark-ups (particularly for wine). Often, the extra cost trickles down to the customer.
BYOB is the workaround. Customers get to drink exactly what they want and save money, while chefs, particularly the young and undercapitalized, can open restaurants without the barrier to entry of a liquor license. No diner in Philly is knocking a restaurant for being a BYOB; that’s why the model has become a launchpad for ambitious chefs like Nicholas Elmi of Laurel, Lee Styer of Fond, and Chris Kearse, formerly of Will, now at Forsythia. All three opened their first solo restaurants as BYOBs before acquiring liquor licenses.
At Noord, a beloved Scandinavian restaurant just off of East Passyunk, BYOB has been a boon. Joncarl Lachman, who grew up in Southwest Philly but spent most of his cooking career in Chicago, returned to his hometown to open Noord. Since 2013, it’s been a mainstay of the scene, drawing a wide audience for its immaculate rotating bread service, bitterballen (nutmeg-scented pork croquettes) and dinner party vibes.
On a recent late-summer evening, PUNCH stopped in to see what everyone was drinking. We interviewed diners who ranged in age from 20- to 60-something, urban to suburban, rosé-basic to natty aficionados, and found one commonality: Everybody loves a BYOB.
Pam Zenzola, Margaret Cronan and Carmela Fioretti
Drinking: La Vieille Ferme Rosé, Samuel Robert Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Noir
Where are you from?
MC: We all live a few blocks from here, but Carmela is from Italy.
CF: My family is all in Provincia di Cosenza. I go back often.
MC: She just got done renovating her parents’ lovely farmhouse.
CF: I actually leave tomorrow—I have to go pack.
So you’re celebrating tonight.
CF: They’re so happy to see me go. [They launch into “So Long, Farewell.”]
How did you decide to come to Noord?
MC: Obviously, we all love BYOs. It’s exciting to choose what you’re gonna take to a great restaurant. I asked if we could do Noord. I haven’t been here in a while. I love Noord no matter what the weather is, but this is a perfect Noord night—cozy, cool and cloudy.
Atypical September-in-South Philly weather. Do you think about that when choosing wine for a BYOB?
MC: Yes. I was actually thinking cab for tonight, but earlier today Carmela said she was chilling rosé, and Pam said her sommelier would pick a really nice red. So what’s lovely for me tonight is I didn’t have to make a choice.
A personal sommelier?
PZ: That’s my husband. I’ll tell him, “I’m going to Noord, pick me a bottle.” Not that he has a million bottles—
CF: He has a million bottles.
PZ: He loves doing it. He knows Noord, he knows what I like.
How’d he do?
PZ: We haven’t tried it yet. [She pours a taste into an empty glass, takes a sip, and passes it to Carmela.] I like it!
CF: Ooh! I like the nose.
PZ: Carmela is the super-smeller.
CF: I smell strawberry-ish. It has a little bit of citrus.
PZ: I can never discern what [wine] smells like. I’m the one [who] if you suggest there’s blackberries, I’m like, “Yeah, I smell blackberries.”
Andrew Korz, 26, and Kristian Hellem, 30
Drinking: Tröegs Hop Knife Harvest IPA
A lot of people are drinking wine here tonight, but you brought beer?
AK: We really like Tröegs, [it’s] probably our favorite brewery, but I haven’t had this one before. We wanted a lighter IPA for tonight, and this is 6.2 percent. I just picked it up.
Have you been to Noord before?
AK: No, but he’s from Norway.
KH: I’ve been here for over 10 years. I lived in North Carolina, and in Philly for the last three years. My mom’s American.
AK: We were just in Norway and Denmark.
When you go out, do you only BYOB or mix it up?
AK: I prefer it, just because it’s cheaper and I can drink exactly what I want. When I’m looking for a nice restaurant, BYOB is definitely preferred.
KH: I had never been to a BYOB before I moved here.
What’s the plan for the rest of the night?
AK: There are a lot of good bars in this neighborhood. I have to get up early tomorrow for a funeral, so hoping to get a little drunk tonight.
Ellen and Jim Giarelli
Drinking: Ca’Rugate Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso, Château Les Charmes-Godard White Bordeaux
Where are you from?
EG: We’re from Lawrenceville, New Jersey, near Princeton. Jim is retired but he often comes to Philly to go the Barnes [Foundation]. I still work, at Drexel University.
Do you come to Noord often?
JG: First time!
How is it so far?
JG: We were just saying this is one of the best experiences we’ve had in a restaurant in a long time. We were going out for my birthday and had a reservation at Cadence, which was rated No.1 [on Food & Wine’s 2019 Best New Restaurants], but then somewhere I saw Noord, and it looked distinctive. We’ve been to Northern Europe—Oslo, Denmark—and love this kind of food.
Is it tricky to pair wine with Dutch food?
EG: Well, I only drink white.
JG: I’ll drink white, but I enjoy red.
EG: I like white Bordeaux—it goes with anything—but also sauvignon blanc, Sancerre. Chardonnay is too creamy for me.
What do you like about BYOBs?
JG: Well, part of the reason is it helps the diversity. If you go [to a restaurant with a liquor license] and have a few drinks you can go from a $150 bill to a $350 bill. Here, you have younger people that can have a really nice meal, bring a six-pack of beer, and pay $45.
Is there a drawback to BYOBs?
EG: The only thing you miss with BYOBs is the [pairings with a] tasting menu. We’ve gone to restaurants where they pair the courses, which is a cool thing because we get to taste things we’d never try, like sake or dessert wine. What you really want is the best of both worlds, a state system that would allow restaurants to have a BYOB aspect but also have a back room or something where they could offer an aperitif after dinner. Of course, that requires changing the legislature.
The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board has a pretty tight grip on that, which is why buying booze in Jersey is such a Philly thing—it’s so much cheaper. [Editor’s note: This is technically against the law.] Is wine cheaper in restaurants, too?
EG: Not necessarily. Even in Princeton, at nice places, you can pay $18 a glass.
JG: If we each have three glasses of wine, it would cost us at least $100. We buy pretty good wine.
How do you find your favorites?
JG: I read The New York Times and the Washington Post wine sections. They both have wine editors who write [tasting notes and make recommendations]. I look for whites for Ellen. Then I go to local places and buy a few bottles.
It sounds like you do your due diligence.
JG: Well, we have nothing else to do.
Doesn’t Ellen work at Drexel?
JG: I have nothing else to do.
Kaitlyn McNamara, 30, and Jeff Hurwitz, 33
Drinking: Mother Rock Force Celeste Cinsault
What brings you to Noord tonight?
KM: It’s his birthday.
JH: I’ve been here twice. She knows I love it.
KM: I kept fucking with him and telling him I made a reservation at Fond [a restaurant across the street].
JH: That would have been fine, too.
KM: But it’s not BYO.
What did you bring to drink tonight?
JH: We got a couple bottles yesterday at Hawthorne’s [bottle shop and café], and I wasn’t sure whether to bring the red or the white tonight, and chose the [cinsault].
KM: I’ve been on a red kick lately. We’re into funky wine.
KM: Yes, but they’re hard to come by in Philadelphia.
Why is that?
JH: State liquor laws mostly.
Besides bringing your own, where can you drink natural wine in Philly?
KM: Fountain Porter for the longest time has had a natural wine program.
That is a sneaky-good list at Fountain Porter.
KM: I was there the other day, and someone asked, “Do you have any normal wine?” I was like, “Stop it.”
How did you get into natural wine?
KM: We were in Spain and I was looking for natural wine and someone told me to download this app—
KM: Raisins! [She opens the Raisins app, which displays local establishments pouring natty wines.] In Spain they have a whole bunch of stuff, but here, there was nothing.
Does anything pop up now?
KM: Fountain Porter. Are a lot of people in your story drinking natural wine?
Jim Gladstone, 54, Kelly McQuain, 52, John Lau, 54, and John Cawley, 50
Drinking: 2017 Plume Pinot Grigio
What are you up to tonight?
KM: We’re catching up with old friends.
JG: We’re from San Francisco. I grew up here, but we live in San Francisco, where you have to pay a lot more for wine in restaurants, so we’re back to do some cheap drinking.
How is wine culture different in Philly versus San Francisco?
JG: It’s way less pretentious for one, although I don’t think Philly is into all the latest trends, like natural wine. I think wine is just part of the fun here, not as much about making a statement. We want what the wine will do to conversation. That’s what we’re after, as opposed to the latest fad in wine.
JL: The wine makes the spirit of the meal come alive.
Do you make it a point to eat at BYOBs when you come to town?
JG: This is the second of three restaurants we’ve been to that were BYOB. I had actually forgotten about it. The first restaurant we went to, we forgot to bring anything and wound up drinking tea.
It looks like you didn’t make that mistake tonight.
JG: We have had some sauvignon blanc and this is a pinot gris. My mother likes it, so I sent her a case of a dozen different pinot gris. I’m sure this is probably pulled from that.
So you plundered Mom’s wine cellar?
JG: She’s very generous.