Steve Holt is a writer living in Boston. His work regularly appears in Civil Eats and Edible Boston.
The Boston City Council is finally considering allowing diners to bring their own alcohol to local restaurants. Here's why this is even a debate.
At Chicago’s Ruxbin, an American bistro between Wicker Park and West Town, diners may arrive with a nice Pinot Noir in hand to pair with the Rohan Duck Breast, or perhaps a Chardonnay to complement the red grouper. For a $5 per bottle corkage fee, a server will gladly furnish and fill your wine tumblers and provide an ice bucket to keep the remaining wine chilled.
But if a customer were to try to pull this same maneuver in Boston at, say, South End Asian bistro Myers+Chang, he would be sternly reprimanded and possibly escorted to the door. “Bring your own bottle” (BYOB) is illegal in Boston. Plus, Joanne Chang paid the city government a hefty fee for her restaurant’s license to sell sake and wine.
Two of Boston’s city councilors would like to see that change, at least in certain parts of the city, and have proposed a more permissive BYOB policy that is currently under review by a subcommittee of the council. In a city whose political treatment of alcohol has traditionally been quite parochial, the proposal is sure to spark a lively debate, both within the city council and in the greater community.
Still, the question remains: Why are BYOB policies so normal in some places, but so tricky in others?
A brief history
Most North American cities didn’t start regulating (or restricting) BYOB policies until the 1970s, though in Australia and New Zealand, the practice began a bit earlier, in the 1960s.
Yet it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the trend really began to take off. Spurred by sky-high, low-availability liquor licenses and a requirement to buy alcohol from the state rather than private distributors with whom they could negotiate deals, several Philadelphia restaurants began rolling out BYOB policies in that decade. Today, hundreds of Philly restaurants allow BYOB, resulting in a diverse array of culinary options and a "bring your own" culture like nowhere else.
By most measurements, Philly’s BYOB experience has been a rousing success, inspiring other cities to look at revising their policies. Austin, where a food and dining scene has boomed over the last decade, adopted a more formal BYOB policy in 2007 that's similar to Philadelphia's. In Chicago, with no official BYOB law on the books, patrons have been arriving at restaurants with booze in hand for decades. And Boston suburbs Marblehead and Brookline introduced provisions for BYOB in 2012 and 2013, respectively—but only for restaurants without a full liquor license.
Different regulations, different outcomes
So regulations around BYOB can and do differ widely from city to city. In many places, including San Francisco, New York, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., only restaurants that already hold liquor licenses may allow customers to bring their own. To offset the obvious profit loss, most licensed restaurants in these cities charge a corkage fee which can run anywhere from $5 to $100 in some cases. It’s also common etiquette among BYOBers to order the first bottle of wine off the restaurant’s wine list before opening their own.
Elsewhere (including Philly and Austin), BYOB is a separate category for restaurants that don't have a regular liquor license. In Austin, these restaurants may or may not charge a corkage fee.
Chicago’s regulations are more fluid, allowing both restaurants with or without licenses to permit BYOB, but giving the city the power to ban the practice in certain places. Boston Mayor Martin Walsh has suggested he will not sign a blanket ordinance permitting BYOB across the city, saying it would be unfair to restaurants and bars in the chic downtown districts that have paid dearly for (and benefit greatly from) their liquor licenses.
The real controversy
Which brings us to the key conflict surrounding BYOB, one that is already being borne out in conversations at Boston’s City Hall. First, the positive. BYOB laws are great for diners looking to save money, the beer and wine shops who serve them, and the BYOB restaurant, says Brian Warrener, an associate professor at the Center for Food Service Management at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, which is a BYOB city.
“Many BYOB restaurants are too small to pay what can be exorbitant fees for licenses,” he says. “Many are so small as to not have the space for inventory and glassware. Corkage fees and BYOB allow these restaurants to make a small amount of money on beverages in circumstances where they might not be able to provide this service themselves.”
City Councilors Michelle Wu and Stephen Murphy, who are co-sponsoring the proposal in Boston, say a carefully constructed BYOB plan could lower the bar for entrepreneurs seeking to open new restaurants by “alleviating some of the disadvantage from scarce liquor licenses.” In the draft ordinance, they write that “thriving neighborhood restaurants can often anchor vibrant and diverse small business districts,” spurring economic activity in areas that have fewer fine restaurants and bars. Under Boston's proposed new policy, BYOB would still be banned at restaurants already holding a liquor license, per state law.
But BYOB is not without its skeptics, or all-out opponents, for that matter. Some restaurant owners who forked over loads of cash—anywhere from $15,000 to $375,000 in Boston—to win sometimes elusive liquor licenses do not take kindly to a place down the street allowing patrons to walk in with their own bottles of wine or beer, a point Boston City Council President Bill Linehan raised at a recent hearing on the matter. Warrener adds that “the license, space, equipment, supplies, inventory, time, effort and expertise required to offer an excellent beverage program are expensive,” and full-service restaurants generate up to half their profits from the sale of alcoholic beverages. BYOB may undercut this profit source, “removing too much revenue from the restaurant industry as a whole.”
Another concern is that it becomes sort of a liquor license lite. At-Large Councilor Ayanna Pressley* raised this concern recently, saying she fears BYOB could create a two-tiered system, wherein more affluent neighborhoods feature the lion’s share of restaurants with full liquor licenses, while BYOB is relegated to less affluent neighborhoods.
Warrener from Johnson & Wales says that in Rhode Island, BYOB “doesn't seem to have had much of a positive or negative effect on the state's restaurant business.” His analysis of BYOB’s neutral impact on restaurants probably works in favor of advocates for expansion of the practice, but that doesn't mean everyone in Boston is convinced.
As a city, Boston tends to approach big changes with extreme caution. Still, after a winter that has been utterly devastating for the city’s restaurants and bars, we may see Boston more willing to adopt whatever plan will get residents interested in eating out again.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified which part of Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley represents. She is a citywide at-large member of the council, not a representative of just one section of the city.