You're dining out. The restaurant you've chosen has excellent cuisine but the wine list is limited, offering mostly very young wines that you would consider not yet ready to drink -- and you have a cellar or wine keeper full of bottles at or near their peak.
Well, that's a no-brainer. You call the restaurant, ask about the corkage fee and make plans to bring in your own wine. You and your party go to the restaurant and have a wonderful time. You tip the server generously because you know he or she supplied stemware and provided additional service. You understand the necessity of the restaurant charging a corkage fee because you know it costs the establishment to maintain the amenities customers enjoy. So what's wrong with this picture?
Well, to listen to restaurateurs, customers and wait staff personnel, there can be issues. Waiters sometimes believe that they are providing good service and missing out on the appropriate tip for the table because the diners only pay 15 percent (or less) on the entire bill, including the cork fee. Even if the BYOB group wants to open and pour their own wine, the waiter would still be expected to continue all the other customary services. The BYOBers would occupy the table at least as long as a party that had ordered from the wine list and whose total check would be higher. Plus, the wait staff can't turn the lower-check BYOB table over more quickly because wine drinkers generally linger.
Meanwhile, some customers might believe that the restaurant is gouging them by charging a corkage fee -- or even for marking up wine prices. Restaurateurs, many of whom have a huge investment in their wine program, may fear that too many diners will take advantage of their low corkage fees and diminish the profit margin of a business that must sell beverages to survive.
Despite concerns, a survey of the local scene reveals that BYOBers have plenty of options and opportunities.
First, let's visit the no-corkage-fee restaurants. The good news for wine lovers who like to have wine-tasting dinners out is that at least five local restaurants offer one cork-free evening a week. In addition, a few dining spots don't have a liquor license and allow patrons to bring their own wine, corkage free.
'Monday night is a slow night,' says Eveline Crozier, co-owner of Chateaubriand, 'so we waive the corkage fee that night.'
On other nights, Chateaubriand charges $15 for standard-sized bottles and $25 for a magnum. 'We assume if you are bringing a bigger bottle, more guests will be sharing the wine which would incur more service, special stemware, perhaps decanting,' Crozier says. 'In this case and in the spirit of fairness, I think the customer should tip the server on the amount of the least expensive bottle on the wine list.
'I understand that people who have extensive cellars need to drink their wine and want to go out and have a special evening, and we're happy to offer that service. However, if everyone brought in wine, it would cut into our revenue dramatically.'
Monday is also a cork-free night at the new restaurant Fire, which opened earlier this month at 1377 Annunciation St. 'Our usual corkage fee is $5 every night but Monday and I feel people who are sophisticated diners know to show their appreciation to the wait staff,' says Brenda Darr, Fire's co-owner and general manager.
Patrons can experience corkage-free dining at Martinique Bistro on Tuesday evenings, says manager Jennifer Sherrod. 'Our usual fee is $10 per bottle but we waive that on other nights if customers also order a bottle off our list,' Sherrod says. 'It's preferable to call to make sure the wine you're bringing isn't on our wine list, because that would not be acceptable and could cause an uncomfortable situation with one's dinner companions.'
'Corkage amnesty' night is the term Marisol Restaurant co-owner Janis Vazquez applies to Wednesdays, when customers are allowed to bring in wine without having to pay the usual $15 corkage fee. 'Most customers don't mind corkage fees and treat the wait staff fairly, but the ones that quibble don't understand the economics of running a restaurant,' she says. 'They don't figure in the cost of the ice machine, the linens, dishwashers, glassware, the many expenses we have to cover just to stay in business.
'Some people look at a unit cost of a bottle of wine that they've seen or purchased at a grocery store and decry the restaurant mark-up without realizing that the store probably bought a pallet of the wine and got it at a rock-bottom price,' Vazquez says. 'Many restaurants are small and don't have extensive storage space so wines are bought a few bottles at a time.
'What they don't realize is that restaurants couldn't survive without beverage mark-up on all beverages, from iced tea to mixed drinks to wine, because food prices don't cover the many operating costs, so there has to be something that's profitable.'
Roland Adams, owner-proprietor of Marigny Brasserie, notes that fast-food restaurants charge $2 for a burger and $1 or more for a fountain drink that maybe costs less than a nickel. 'When we were at our former location before we got our liquor license, we just broke even on food sales alone,' he says. 'Now at least we stand a chance at making a profit.'
On Thursday nights, the Sun Ray Grill in the American Can Company offers a different opportunity to bring wine in for dinner, corkage free. 'A large number of people are attracted to the Farmer's Market and to the neighboring Cork & Bottle wine shop which hosts a free tasting on Thursday nights,' says Dana Deutch, Sun Ray's executive chef and proprietor. 'With a receipt for wine from Cork & Bottle, guests can dine corkage free.' He notes that the Sun Ray restaurants in Metairie and the Warehouse District have a 20 percent discount on every bottle on the wine list on Tuesday nights.
Many restaurants don't allow any outside wines. Others, like Lola's, charge a minimum corkage fee of $2.50 per bottle. 'Even though we're hoping to obtain a liquor license so we can serve house wine to those who didn't bring wine with them, we won't change the low cork fee,' says chef-owner Angel Miranda.
One waiter says he likes the idea of a corkage-free night -- but adds that some diners abuse the situation. He recalls one party that brought wine on a corkage-free evening and a coupon for a free entree. Their check was only $36 and they left a $5 tip. But that's a rare lapse, he says: 'Most people are very good about it. The only time I ever tasted a 1982 first-growth Bordeaux was when one of our customers brought the bottle in and insisted I have a taste.'
One frequent diner lists numerous reasons for being a BYOBer: 'My main motivations for bringing in wine are that, one, I have an extensive collection and when I dine out, I want the best wine I can drink with my dinner, and, two, it's more affordable for me to dine out at a nice restaurant, even with a corkage fee and my usual 30 percent tip on the total bill.
'In this issue, I find people are divided into two camps: Some seem to think paying a corkage fee somehow compensates the server, but it doesn't,' the diner says. 'That fee goes toward offsetting the loss of restaurant income from parties that don't order wine off the restaurant's list. I'm with the camp that believes the server should be compensated additionally. It's a great trade off for my having the privilege of bringing in my own wine.'
How can this good balance be achieved? Taking into account the reasonable expectations of restaurateurs, waiters and customers, the following guidelines should apply:
1. When planning to go out to dinner, call the restaurant and check on the wine policy. Ask if there's a corkage and what it may be, and if the restaurant needs to know what wine you're bringing. Most restaurants do not allow customers to bring in wine that's already on the wine list. However, an older vintage of such a wine would be acceptable in most cases.
2. Save the more casual wines you want to try for restaurants that offer corkage-free nights. Other nights, bring rare, unusual or older bottles. If it's a special occasion, all the more reason to bring a very special wine.
3. In the spirit of fairness to the server, whether there's a cork fee or not, tip the waiter as if you ordered wine at the restaurant. In fact, a good rule of thumb is to review the wine list, observe a comparable bottle to the one you brought in, and tip 17-20 percent based on that wine. At the very least, look for the lowest priced wine on the menu and tip on that amount.
4. When bringing in your own wine to a restaurant, buy a couple of glasses of wine or a bottle of the house wine while you're ordering to show good faith that you appreciate the opportunity to be able to enjoy your own wine in the restaurant setting. Some establishments waive the cork fee if you purchase a bottle from the list.
5. Offer the proprietor, maitre d', chef or server a small amount of your wine to taste. 6. When you bring wine to a restaurant, order more than a couple of appetizers or the least expensive items on the menu. Occupying a table, enjoying the atmosphere and service while sitting around for several hours drinking your wine is a privilege and a courtesy to customers, so by all means, patronize the restaurant.