B.Y.O.B. – A Guide to Chicago’s BYOB restaurants
Chicago is a restaurant mecca, a culinary bonanza where you can find a nationally recognized eatery or a fantastic local favorite in every neighborhood of the city. The result is a fiercely competitive environment for restaurateurs, investors and chefs, each looking to outdo one another in food, décor, price and the ever important “buzz”. You only need your swanky new fine dining haven to have a rocky start with a couple bad reviews before people are on to the next joint without so much as a glance back. This town has an unrelenting palate, endless in its diversity and the attention span of a jack rabbit as it hops to the next blade of grass if your food even dares mediocrity. Thus, every place in Chicago needs an advantage and some of those wonderful family run ethnic spots wouldn’t stand a chance without that magic word: B.Y.O.B.
By far the greatest acronym in the city of Chicago, Bring Your Own Booze (or Beer as the case might be), is sometimes the way to go in a town that’s tough on liquor licences. The process for a restaurant to obtain a liquor license is complicated, lengthy and expensive. When restaurants are bought with existing liquor licenses it often brings with it a massive price tag that most new joints can’t afford. If applying for a new liquor license, we’re talking months of paper work, public notifications, inspections and applications. While all of this is happening, these establishments must pay their rent, a very difficult endeavor when the happy couple having a nice night out can’t enjoy a bottle of wine with their meal. Thus, the city more or less turns a blind eye to those places offering BYOB, making their meals an instant steal for folks who don’t want to pay a 200% markup on their favorite new Pinot.
While some restaurants see BYOB as a stepping stone to one day overcharging for booze, a lot of restaurants (mostly regional cuisine, the Thai and Mexican themes pair well with the concept) thrive on the BYOB stamp. People run the term through social search engines for last minute ventures into unknown areas. You’ll have a taco joint on Milwaukee that gives you the mixings for michelada’s if you bring your own beer. That standby BBQ gets paired with the ale of your choice while the sit down charcuterie coincidentally has a wine store in the front. Almost everyone charges a “corkage fee” which could range anywhere from $2 – $30. Though it feels like a fantastic deal, charging a corkage fee is technically illegal. The city’s BYOB policy forbids it. But let’s not rock the boat people, the city for once is not taking its pound of flesh here. So long as the fees don’t get silly then we can all look the other way. That’s my take anyway.
So next time you’re breathing heavily on some window posted menu and find the math running a bit high, pause and whip out your iPhone app for a little BYOB consultation. Look up the nearest liquor store while you’re at it. A man or woman can survive on pocket wine diners alone in this city and still have a pretty good grasp on the full culinary scene.