There aren’t many cities where you can show up to a restaurant with a bottle of booze and be taken seriously. But for the Philadelphian, it’s just another night out on the town. The city’s restaurant scene thrives on places where you can bring your own beer, wine or liquor free of charge, which locals casually refer to as BYOs. While the cost-saving appeal for the patron is obvious, it might be an even better deal for the chefs, who can open restaurant concepts on the cheap without having to come up with the money for a liquor license (the average cost is around $125,000 in Pennsylvania). With dozens of restaurants operating under the umbrella, there is no better way to experience life as a local, and there’s a BYO for every occasion and every craving in the City of Brotherly Love.
Along with Dimitri’s in Queen Village, Audrey Claire in Rittenhouse was one of the pioneers of the BYO scene in the 1990s, and its concept mirrors the idealistic principles of the scene as a whole. Owner Audrey Taichman said she fills the menu with “items that someone could eat two to three times a week”—dishes like flatbreads, mussels, roasted chicken, pork chops and Portobello pasta—to ensure the place remains an accessible, affordable neighborhood cafe. Its large windows open up the restaurant to the city streets, furthering the connection with the neighborhood as people across all platforms, be it a first date or a group gathering, meet up for a night out in this chatty, bustling keystone.
In the decades that have followed, the BYO scene has exploded beyond Audrey Claire’s vision of “home cooking” and now includes a large variety of ethnic food concepts. Relatively new, TartArperia18.64 opened in Fishtown back in December and serves Venezuelan cuisine. It’s still working out the kinks in terms of service and ambiance (much of its business is still take out), but it’s a great example of how BYOs are being redefined, and worth a stop to try its specialty open-faced arepas. The Asada Negro starts with a cornmeal base and is filled with roasted beef that has been slow-cooked with brown sugar cane and Venezuelan spices ($6.99). Don’t think of TartArperia as a date-night, bottle-of-wine kind of place. Instead, show up to this hole-in-the-wall, under-the-train-tracks eatery with a bomber of beer to pair with an arepa or two.
Helm launched a little more than two years ago when the farm-to-table concept was in full swing, and it hasn’t looked back since. Located in Kensington, Helm has a sign that hangs on the wall near a bookshelf that reads, “Eat Like a Local.” Sketched in around the letters are various vegetables, a nod to the restaurant’s vision of supporting local farms. Dominating most of the far wall is a chalkboard menu that color codes its ingredients, using orange when writing the word carrot, brown for meats, green for the various lettuces and so on. The contemporary American menu is rightfully based around the fresh produce that either stands alone or accompanies meat or fish in both small and large plates that are great for sharing. Rounding out the rural undertones is a record player and a collection of vinyl, which customers are free to peruse and play.
Chef Benjamin Moore said, “the idea behind Wister is to keep it small, but have it changing so often that there’s always something new for our repeat diners.” As with Audrey Claire, this is a good sign that Wister prides itself on being a neighborhood establishment in Northern Liberties. The dishes focus heavily on the seasons in their ingredients and recipes, though the menu has enough variety to please a party of varying palates. It’s Chicken for Two is a slam dunk for date night, but many come for the wide-range of seafood options (currently, the menu has tuna, baby squid, pan-seared durade and grilled stone bass). The brick interior walls add a great sense of place to the restaurant, reflecting the historic exteriors of buildings throughout the neighborhood and nearby Old City.
Passyunk is a hot Philly neighborhood for restaurants these days, and NOORD sits at the heart of this growth with a prime corner location in tight-knitted South Philly. It’s not new itself, but the renewed energy in the area has brought its Dutch cuisine revived attention. With low-lighting and an ambiance that puts candlelight at the center of your table, you don’t even need to be on a date to feel the relaxing romance. Give preference to the fresh and more complex creations on the menu, like the smoked fish appetizer board or the Konijn in het Zuur, an entrée that combines vinegar-braised rabbit leg, smoked sausage, lardon, turnips and sauerkraut.
Will McGough is the editor of Wake and Wander Hawaii, Hawaii’s local travel newspaper.