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To BYOB or Not to BYOB? 

Cheapskate's delight or connoisseur's privilege, bring-your-own has its own etiquette.

When old regulars headed to Lola's, they always knew to pick up a bottle of wine on the way, because the popular Spanish cafe had no liquor license. That changed in 2004, but the restaurant's open-door BYOB policy did not. On any given night the dining room appears evenly split between those drinking from the wine list and those pulling their own bottles from grocery bags.

"I thought it was only fair for my customers to do the same as always," explains owner Angel Miranda. "If someone enjoys the meal more with their own bottle, that's fine. We just charge them $5 now to cover glasses and that sort of thing."

If only the realm of BYOB etiquette and policy were so laissez faire everywhere. Rules and expectations vary from dining room to dining room. Most local restaurants without liquor licenses allow BYOB, but the corkage fee they charge can vary greatly and the accommodations provided run the gamut. More complicated still are the questions about bringing a bottle to a restaurant with its own wine list.

While many such restaurants allow customers to bring their own, the general expectation is that it should be very fine, of rare vintage or have some personal significance that the restaurant's own list cannot match.

"It has to be something special, you can't just be the guy trying to cheap the system with a $7 bottle of wine," says Jon Smith, proprietor of Cork & Bottle Fine Wines in Mid-City. "That said, if a place has a crappy wine list, the interpretation of special can stretch pretty far."

In fact, restaurants with robust wine lists and a sommelier on staff are often the most BYOB-friendly. Restaurant August, for instance, charges no corkage fee at all. Others have devised policies aimed at deterring would-be cheapskates while accommodating those who follow the spirit of fair play.

For instance, Restaurant Cuvee charges a $25 corkage fee, which is among the higher levels in town, but will waive the fee for every bottle the customer purchases from its own list of 650 labels. At the new Pellicano Ristorante in Kenner, the corkage fee is just $8, but the restaurant explicitly states on its Web site that the policy applies only to "a rare, vintage or hard to find bottle of wine that you have been saving for a special occasion."

"We want everything we do here to be centered on wine, so we want to make it fair and not discourage the couple with the truly special bottle, but at the same time not give carte blanche to stop at the Chevron on the way here," says owner Jeff Domangue.

"When someone has a $25 corkage fee, the subtext to me is that your wine is not welcome here. I wanted to make sure people knew outside wine was welcome as long as it's appropriate," he says.

Whether a restaurant has a liquor license or not, it's standard practice to add the value of BYOB wine to the meal's total cost when calculating the tip. Veterans of the BYOB routine also recommend calling a restaurant to check policies and to consider conditions in the dining room once you arrive.

"If I get a bad vibe, like if it's too busy for them to handle it or the right manager isn't on duty, I just leave the bottle under the table," Smith says. "It really is a privilege and you have to respect that."

There's no ambiguity about the policy at eat New Orleans, a 2-year-old French Quarter café where "BYOB encouraged" is printed right on the menus. The policy is a holdover from the building's 25-year run as the Quarter Scene Restaurant. While chef and co-owner Jarred Zeringue was aware that the restriction was part of the zoning for the property, he was surprised to learn what a difference it made in cultivating a clientele of frequent customers.

"I think it helps us out, especially in the summer. Locals know we're BYOB and they come often because it's more affordable for them," he says. "At brunch, I'd say a third of the tables are drinking mimosas with champagne they got down the street at Matassa's Grocery."

click to enlarge Jon Smith of Cork & Bottle Fine Wines recommends calling ahead to check on restaurant policy and only bringing a truly special wine when going BYOB. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Jon Smith of Cork & Bottle Fine Wines recommends calling ahead to check on restaurant policy and only bringing a truly special wine when going BYOB.
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