Why don’t we have more BYOB in London?

Of course, I WILL have to charge you corkage, monsieur…

Bring Your Own Booze. Like doggie bags, it’s a concept  that hasn’t quite made it over the pond to the shores of Ol’ Blighty. Ask for a doggie bag and you more often than not get a look like you just asked for doggie style.

BYOB? It seems you might as well be asking to bring your own food to a restaurant. But why not bring your own wine for a reasonable or no corkage fee? BYOB has been around for ages in various manifestations, I found it being traced back to the 19th century on Wikipedia, the last B standing for Basket (for picnic baskets which invariably had a bottle or two nestled amongst the food, I presume). Nowadays,  the last B stands for Bottle or Booze. Of course, BYOB is an economical way to have a night out but when I worked in fine dining in the States, it was more often than not that guests brought  in their best bottles to celebrate and/or enjoy with their meals. Corkage fees varied but the average seemed to be around $20, oftentimes less and those who brought their own wine were wise to the fact that they couldn’t bring a wine that was already on the restaurant list.

So, if even fine dining restaurants do it in America, why not here? London has some of the best wines in the world readily available yet unless they’re on the winelist, you’re out of luck (unless you don’t mind coughing up plenty of dough if they are on the winelist). There are however, some restaurants that allow you to BYOB in London, most of them feature Asian cuisine for some reason, those that don’t include; The Hawksmoor in Shoreditch, Cafe Anglais in Bayswater, Racine in South Ken, St. John in Farringdon, The Bloody French in Westbourne Grove and, of course, the Foodie bloggers favourite (which happens to be Asian), Tayyabs in East London. Texture in Central London is doing a special offer at the moment, waiving their corkage fee (normally £25) from Jan 5th-31st.

You can find lists of the London restaurants that do allow BYOB with or without corkage fees at Wine pages, London Eating, and Square Meal. It’s always worth phoning up beforehand just to make sure they allow BYOB and to reconfirm corkage fee, if any. It’s also nice to offer the server a taste. I remember when I waited tables that was always a nice little perk.

I know I’ve got a couple of bottles I’m thinking of taking to The Hawksmoor for lunch to enjoy with, what everyone tells me, is the best burger in London. So how about it London restaurants? Why not introduce reasonable or no corkage fees? Or if you have a BYOB policy, let us know about it! If people are staying in pleading penury, this may be a way of coaxing punters out of the cold and into your warm dining rooms.

51 Comments

  1. Theres a great lebanese and Turkish BYO BYOB restaurant in Aldgate near spitalfields. Adiva restaurant is exellent for food, decor, service and ofcourse the BYOB.

  2. Your website looks really good. Being a blog writer myself, I really appreciate the time you took in writing this article.

  3. Here in Spain (and the rest of mainland Europe too, I think) we don’t have BYOB at all. I doesn’t really bother me because in general wine prices in restaurants are quite reasonable; well, less unreasonable than in UK at any rate!!! It depends on the restaurant of course. You are generally guaranteed a good quality house wine. Also, as there is no alcohol tax (excise duty) here in Spain, the price/quality point is much higher, ie you can get better quality wine with the same money (or the same quality wine with less money!), so people aren’t so upset about the margins charged by restaurants in the UK.

    • Yes, I think there is less of a need for BYOB as the taxes on alcohol are nowhere near as exorbitant as they are here in London. Drinking wine in a restaurant is not unreasonable but to be expected. Thanks for your comment!

  4. Well Denise,

    Great comments you really touched a raw nerve these.
    I have always, in all my career tried to persuade restaurant owners to allow byo.
    Not only you can attract serious wine geeks in doing so but you are opening a door a whole range of new customers.
    At l’anima, working with high rollers and such it was with great pleasure that we opened (and tasted) some wonderful wines.
    It’s basically a give and take. Customers get low corckage costs and give back in buying a bottle of aperitifs, bubbles or bottle of white to start with.
    Any official list of byo in the making?

    • Thanks for stopping by! Great to hear such forward thinking comments from a sommelier. I don’t have an official list yet but it’s a work in progress. I’m slowly making my way thru the restaurants!

  5. Hot topic and you’re absolutely right. Love the opening paragraph – genius.

  6. Bit of a belated response to an interesting topic. I don’t really think that either the price of London rents or the mark-up that restaurants make are particularly relevant to whether or not those restaurants do BYO (although both are undoubtedly too high in general). I think it just boils down to two things – firstly, and most importantly is the restaurant always full? Presumably most restaurants would say ‘no’ to this. Although our restaurant is regularly booked up long in advance we don’t fill every seat at every sitting, so if the restaurant feels they might get some extra business from BYO then they should do it. We, for example, are not always full on Mondays, so we drop our regular corkage of £25 to £5 and as a result we get more people in – they buy food, other drinks, they pay the corkage and they might be the kind of people who would like the restaurant and the wine list enough to come back another time.

    The second question, if every seat is taken, is how much money on average would you make from selling a bottle of wine (after all if you make £50 on average with every bottle and you’re fully booked there seems little advantage in letting people bring their own wine and pay a tenner). At Hawksmoor we charge a pretty low % mark-up (usually working on a cash margin, which works better for everyone – better value for the customer who in turns buys more interesting wines and comes more often) and have a pretty high spend per head so we get around £25 on average from selling a bottle. AS a result we charge £25 if you want to bring your own wine in on any other nights. It may seem a bit high, but it makes business sense for us and seems a good compromise, espcially as people can do it for £5 on a Monday if they want. We may decide to lower the corkage fee in a different location.

    Anyway, all a long way of saying I think every restaurant should allow BYOB, and they should probably also use it as a draw for people on quieter nights. The ‘Free BYOB’ thing some restaurants are doing seems great to me.

    • Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment and explaining your corkage fee pricing system. It seems fair given your location and the fact that as you explained, your markups are not over the top. You also make another good point that just because a customer may bring a bottle of wine, that’s not to stop them from ordering drinks beforehand or afterwards or even another bottle of wine once they’ve finished the one they brought – but that could just be me! :D And, yes, I would be more inclined to revisit if the winelist was interesting and reasonably priced or had a wine that I really wanted to try.

      The WSJ recently did an article on how restaurants in San Francisco are now doing away with corkage fees altogether and that SF venues are actually playing catch-up to many high end restaurants in other major cities in the States. The link is on my post, Responses to BYOB in London. I really do think that offering BYOB, esp. on slow nites (but every nite as well) is a great way to attract customers and build loyalty. Just because BYOB is offered doesn’t necessarily mean that customers will take advantage of it everytime or even often but it’s nice to have the option.

    • Great response…I remember when I was in charge of wine at Fifth Floor at Harvey Nichols a few years ago, we used to do a special wine promo on a Monday night in the restaurant. Guests dining in the restaurant paid the wine shop prices for the wine. It wasn’t really a BYOB situation, but it ended up as being half price. Worked really well until the pulled the plug on it after I left in 2006. It was a good way to get punters into your establishment on a slow night, feel comfortable, possibly trade up and really enjoy themselves.

  7. gourmettraveller /

    Denise your post inspired me to have a ask around to see which restaurants actually do BYO and I’m pleased to find the list more sizeable than anticipated! I have a compiled a list (with corkage fees) at – http://gourmettraveller.wordpress.com/2010/01/07/london-bring-your-own-restaurant-list/

    Time to take a few bottles out of the wine fridge and dust them off! :)

    • Thanks for the list! I had a look at your post and some of the corkage fees were ridiculous in my opinion. I hope you get a chance to check out the Wall Street Journal article on restaurants in San Francisco doing away with corkage fees. The link is my post on responses to BYOB in London. Thanks for your comments, much appreciated. :-)

      • gourmettraveller /

        I did come across that article about BYO in SFC yesterday actually! It’s great what they’re doing but London’s pretty far away from getting there unfortunately. Last year we did a Napa/SFC trip and we brought wine we had bought from the wineries to every meal during our fortnight there – good times!

        • I know, I was in Napa a couple of years ago and would visit wineries during the day and take my purchases with me to dinner every nite. Good times, indeed! :D

  8. You have touched on a pet hate of mine here… I live in main-land Europe and BYO is non-existant here (unless you know the owner). Growing up in Melbourne, Australia, the idea of not being able to take a bottle to dinner is just greedy and narrow minded.

    I can understand restaraunters not wants someone turning up with 20 beers and a bottle of vodka, but wine is another story. If more places offered it, I would eat out more. There are so many empty restaraunts I see, who would benefit from offering something different.

    BYO is the way to go!!! :-)

    • YES! I really do think I have hit a nerve here and as a matter of fact, I’ve been contacted by a number of restaurants who want to let my readers know that they do BYOB. I will be tweeting details in the near future and look out for posts as well. I do hope that London restaurants take note of the desire for something not new, but a tried and true trick of the trade.

  9. As a night clubing party girl in the 80′s I tried to do that at some upscale clubs because we couldn’t afford or were not prepared to pay for out drinks. Got thrown out a couple of times but my main club would just hold on to our bottles of gin/vodka/rum until closing time :) .

    I found it was big in Texas especially in some dry counties.

    • Don’t tell me you never thought of a hip flask strapped to your thigh? That’s why they were invented! LOL This wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I was thinking BYOB…
      Thanks for stopping by :)

  10. rowan /

    bugger..most restaurants in Australia do BYO.. why on earth wouldn’t you??

  11. webcowgirl /

    The reason is clear and simple why we don’t have more BYOB: because there is such a huge profit to make on drinks. I compare supermarket costs to restaurant costs and even after the supermarket’s original markup, a £4 rioja became £12. You’ll pry the right to say no to BYOB out of London restauranteers’ cold, dead, moneygrubbing fingers. On the other hand, if people are stupid enough to pay their prices, they’re just encouraging them. Me, I stick to water, or go to one of the yummy curry joints in Tooting like Mirch Masala and enjoy cheap, delicious food AND a yummy wine, or even a Jack & Coke (well not really but when they say BYOB they aren’t particular).

    • I see you stick to water where if more places had BYOB, you might bring wine and pay the corkage fee. I agree with you but maybe some restauranteurs will be able to see beyond the greed and realize the potential of offering BYOB. As I said, just because it’s there doesn’t necessarily mean people will do it. And if a place does BYOB then maybe then might also have reasonably priced wines on their list, an incentive if you will for people NOT to do BYOB but rather to just enjoy a meal with (the restaurant’s) good wine, isn’t that what going out to a restaurant is all about? Thanks for stopping by!

  12. gourmettraveller /

    Totally agree with everyone’s comments!

    My husband and I are always on the look out for restaurants that offer BYOB. Hereford Road and Ledbury Road near us both do – £15 corkage for the first and if I remember correctly, £30-£50 (champagne) for the latter.

    It always pains us to see bottle we have at home marked up by 3-4 times in a restaurant and it’s becoming increasingly hard to find good value in wine lists at top dining establishments in London – we recently went to Le Gavroche and the wines were a killer!

    • Thanks for stopping by. Speaking to my friends in the trade, we are in agreement that restaurant markups have become obscene. I know about rents and overheads and all that but still there is no excuse for some of the prices you see on winelists today. If restaurants want to see more people drinking their wine, maybe they should rethink their wine pricing or alternatively, why not offer something like BYOB? It certainly can’t hurt them, money in the till is money in the till no matter how it gets there.

      • gourmettraveller /

        So true. And sometimes it’s not even about the money, it’s nice to be able to have special bottles we’ve been holding on to with equally amazing food.

        • Exactly! Back when I worked in a restaurant our regulars would bring in special bottles for special occasions as well as purchasing others from the wine list. I was reading a blog post from the States and they quoted one restaurant that started offering BYOB as saying that business had gone up and that people who were bringing in their own wine were not bringing in supermarket dross but excellent, often expensive bottles then were not on the restaurant winelist. I think if you’re going to a nice restaurant for a meal, you’re not going to want a £3.99 bottle with your mains!

          • I used to do that as well, but only for special regulars and friends etc. They really appreciate it. In this world of business and hospitality it comes with the territory to look after people with warmth and generosity. This has obviously been heightened by the credit crunch and recession, whereby, it is so important to have that feeling of goodwill. Being greedy just gets you nowhere and you’ll quickly pick up a bad rep.

  13. I hear you Denise! And it is funny about the Asian relation with BYOB.

    When I worked as a sommelier in London and Brighton I didn’t mind if people called ahead and asked to bring wine in…but I wouldn’t allow it if the wine was already on our list.
    We charged the house bottle rate and a bit more if it needed decanting.

    I would be very surprised if when a punter called up a restaurant they were dissallowed to bring a bottle.

    But overall, yes I agree more openess to byob would be good.

    ciao,
    louis

    • Hey Louis, I think the Asian thing has something to do with licenses, a lot of them are Muslim and don’t drink it or serve it but guess they have to be practical about it all if they want a successful biz. Surprisingly, lots of high end places in London won’t let you BYOB even if you call, Richard from Bloomberg did an interesting read on requests for BYOB, http://bit.ly/7hj3Rn
      I think restaurants are missing out on this, it’s not to say that there would be a sudden stampede for BYOB but they might get more sales and word of mouth for sure.

    • Completely agree with you Louis. A bit of courtesy goes a long way. I can tell you a couple of stories when I was head sommelier for three years at La Tante Claire (Pierre Koffmann 3 Michelin stars). One day an American guy showed up at the restaurant holding a bottle of 1985 Petrus and demanded that he wished to drink it because he had brought it all the way from USA with him and it was a special occasion. This was a few years ago and I currently had the ’85 on the list, so he could see how much it was priced. However, his offensive manner and the way he spoke without courtesy or respect and having ‘the customer is always right’ attitude meant that unfortunately I declined to accept, open and serve the bottle on that occasion. I did politely point out to him the protocol of calling ahead first to the restaurant and the fact that the wine had probably been all shaken up anyway in his luggage. He was disappointed and a bit disgruntled, but it certainly does pay to call ahead first.

  14. This would be great. Theres so many times I want to drink mead, I would be happy to pay corkage to drink mead in a bar or restuarant as they don’t supply it!

    • Gothicat, hey, who’s to say BYOB has to be wine only? Just make sure you call ahead. Thanks for your two cents!

  15. The mark up on drinks is usually quite high, so the hit to many restaurants / cafes bottom lines (coupled with sky high rents), could be a possible reason why we haven’t seen more BYOB’s in Londonium.

    There are a couple of outstanding BYOB vietnamese restaurants in Shoreditch I know of, just 5 mins on the bus from Liverpool st. station. The food is dirt cheap, of an excellent quality and from memory, they don’t even charge corkage.

    If you aren’t a sensible drinker, be prepared for a monumental hangover the following day!

    • Igmorrison, I understand about sky high rents but is it better to have people in the dining room who might be doing BYOB or an empty dining room? Thanks for the tip on the vietnamese joints in Shoreditch!

  16. Blah Blah BLah Cafe (awesome vege restaurant) in Shepherds Bush is BYOB – and opposite an offlicense too, incase you run out

  17. Re: bringing your own food. One of the best pubs I have ever come across is the Wellington in central Birmingham – a real ale place that allows you to bring whatever food you like along. Moreover they provide plates, cutlery and condiments to go with.

    The much ignored but splendid veggie Jai Krishna on Stroud Green Road is my favourite BYO in London; I miss it – virtually every single Indian subcontinent restaurant in Birmingham allows it.

    • Jessica, I can see bringing your own food to an Ale house that probably has little or no food but it’s nothing compared to having to bring your own meal. Bringing a bottle of wine enhances the dining experience which is why I think people go out for a meal. Thanks for the recommendation! :)

  18. Great post Denise. However, even though I fully endorse and agree with your sentiments about BYOB, I also think that we need to push restaurateurs and sommeliers to be less greedy with their mark ups. The pricing structure with regards to booze in some, primarily high-end London establishments, is absolutely unacceptable. Perhaps BYOB could be the way forwards, but the wine culture of this needs to developed positively similarly in USA, Australia and NZ where it is more accepted.

    • Thanks Robert! I agree with you in regards to changing the wine culture here in London. Opening a dialogue like this is hopefully useful in that it may make a sommelier or restauranteur stop and think for a moment. Is it better to have an empty dining room or a dining room full of people who may or may not have BYOB? As I tweeted earlier, it’s the FACT that you can BYOB that would make me patronize a venue over one that didn’t. I might not bring my own wine and order off the winelist instead but knowing that I COULD bring a bottle makes me feel that the establishment is sensitive to the current economic situation and cares about it’s customers. PS. Also if a restaurant is going to offer BYOB, don’t make the corkage something outrageous like £45! £15 or under would make it attractive and if you think about it, restaurant markups on house wine are around £15 anyway so it’s a win-win situation. The restaurant gets it’s £15 without the hassle of having to actually stock a house wine and the punter gets a wine they WANT to drink rather than the house stuff.

      • Yes Denise I completely agree with you. However, some, and I mean very few establishments actually do take the time and care to have a very good house wine on the list. For the past year or so, I have been involved as a consultant on the Wine Chap website. It has been most interesting delving into and reviewing around 50 wine lists. The BYOB culture definitely needs to be more encouraged, like we’ve all said and agreed, yet this thing will take time to change.

  19. Bonnington Cafe allows BYO. (they are not licensed). I gather the food varies with the different cooks… But for 12 GBP for a 3 course (veg) meal….. and if you are on a night with a good cook it’s a treat…

    • Thanks Aeyal, Sarah and Garlic for the recommendations! Keep’em coming and if you’re favourite restaurant doesn’t offer BYOB maybe you should suggest they do! :-)

  20. Sarah /

    Kitchen W8 was doing BYO with no corkage fees on Sundays in November, expect them to do the same this month. Ring to check beforehand.
    http://www.kitchenw8.com/Contact-Us/

  21. You can BYOB at WNC…Asian again.

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