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BYOB policies go down easy for Western Pennsylvania diners

About Alice T. Carter

By Alice T. Carter

Published: Friday, April 13, 2012, 3:40 p.m.

When dining out, Ken McCrory seldom leaves home without a couple bottles of wine.

"I have a very nice collection of wine and like to take special bottles to a restaurant. I love to taste wine with different cuisines," says McCrory, a Mt. Washington resident and a partner at ParenteBeard LLC.

For McCrory, it's a matter of creating a satisfying match between food and wine.

Having two or three choices give him the flexibility to pick the one that best complements what he and his guests order.

Susan Sternberger, theater-services director for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, concurs.

While she enjoys discovering new and unfamiliar wines on local restaurant lists, she also likes to tote her own. "I like to go down to the cellar and pull out one of my faves and happily enjoy a wine I know," she says.

In recent years, a flurry of independently owned, high-end restaurants have chosen to forgo the expense and hassle of obtaining a liquor license and stocking a full bar by operating restaurants that don't sell liquor but encourage patrons to bring their own bottles.

To cover the expenses involved in buying and washing glasses, and disposing of the empty bottles customers leave behind, most charge what's known as a corkage fee -- a per bottle or per glass charge.

For Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wine writer Dave DeSimone, BYOB restaurants are the perfect place to get together with friends to socialize and share their wines.

DeSimone is part of an informal group of about a dozen people who favor BYOB restaurants for their regular meetings. They enjoy bringing their favorite wines and new discoveries to share and challenge each other's pallettes with blind tastings. "It's a fun surprise to find a French wine might go well with Portuguese food," DeSimone says.

Andrew S. Paul, the producing artistic director of Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, also enjoys collecting and learning about wine and doesn't mind paying the price for a good bottle.

But his fondness for restaurants with BYOB policies has a frugal side as well.

"I think the main reason wine lovers like BYOB is that it allows us to drink high-quality wines at a restaurant without paying a huge price for the privilege," he says. "If I am going to a restaurant I really love for a special occasion and can bring a really good bottle of wine from my cellar, I know the dining experience will be enhanced and that the bill will not be. That's a win-win situation."

Restaurant mark-ups could triple the price, turning a $9 bottle of wine at the liquor store to $27 at a restaurant.

Many restaurants are happy to cater to their preferences.

Even before they opened Wild Rosemary Bistro in Upper St. Clair, the restaurant's three co-owners knew that they wanted to be BYOB.

"Our focus was principally on food," says Cathleen Enders, who's in charge of front of house operations. "This demographic (Upper St. Clair) is people who travel to Napa and have cellars of their own and like to bring their own wine. People like that."

Ninety percent bring a beverage. And it's not limited to wine.

In addition to wine and beer, some bring the fixings for cocktails as well as their own shakers and martini glasses or bottles of Bailey's Irish Creme or Brandy for an after-dinner drink.

"I like BYOB because liquor-license laws in Pennsylvania are so tricky," says Kate Romane, chef and owner of E2 in Highland Park. "People in Pittsburgh are attracted to BYOB because we're all fishing out of the same pond."

Because restaurants and individuals all must buy their liquor from the same Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board inventory, savvy customers like Paul know how much restaurateurs paid for each bottle of wine, beer or spirits and bristle about paying the additional restaurant markup when they know they could bring in the same bottle and pay less.

It's not just resistance to paying markups on a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer, says McCrory, who serves as the president of the wine society at the Duquesne Club, Downtown. Individuals have a luxury not open to most area restaurants, he says. Few small, independent restaurants have the financial resources or the space to purchase and hold cases of wine that can take 15 years to mature.

"It would be financial suicide. It doesn't make economic sense," McCrory says.

Additionally, says Danina DiBattista, one of the owners of Bite Bistro in Bellevue, the hassle of stocking a bar, pricing drinks and keeping track of inventory adds a whole new level of work to running a restaurant.

Bite Bistro didn't have much choice about being exclusively BYOB. Bellevue's laws prohibit the sale of alcohol.

When Danina DiBattista and her sister, Martina, opened Bite Bistro they continued the BYOB policy of the previous restaurant, Vivo, which was run by their parents.

Battista says 90 percent of Bite Bistro customers arrive with wine or other alcohol and 20 percent of them bring spirits -- such as vodka or rum.

The DiBattistas offer innovative support such as artisan sodas and freshly made, in-houses mixers in flavors such as a strawberry mint, which pairs nicely with a customer's rum, or lemon basil, which goes well with vodka.

"It brings a more-fun atmosphere offering things you can't get in a regular bar," says Danina DiBattista.

For David Ariondo, owner of Cafe Vita in Oakmont, the BYOB policy supports the ambiance of the restaurant, which specializes in Italian food that's both contemporary and rustic. "It creates a cozy, warm atmosphere that goes with rustic dining. It feels like you're bringing a bottle to an Italian cafe."

It can even create a feeling of community among a random assortment of strangers who have chosen to dine in the same place on the same night, E2's Romane says.

The restaurant is small -- 10 tables that seat a maximum of 28. When it's full -- as it often is on weekend evenings -- it's hard not to notice what diners are drinking at adjoining tables, says Romane who estimates that 85 to 90 percent of dinner customers bring wine.

"People start talking. ... It's a great conversation-starter." It's not unusual for diners to start asking questions about a neighbor's wine and have both tables end up sharing and comparing the wines they've brought.

Sometimes, they'll offer Romane a taste. "I love it. ... I'm learning a lot about wine," she says.

BYOB restaurants

Area diners will find the bring-your-own-beverage policy available at a diverse selection of restaurants. Everyone seems to have a favorite. Here's a few of ours:

Bite Bistro: Contemporary, eclectic. Corkage fee: $2 wine bottle or $1 per stem for beer and other liquor. 565 Lincoln Ave., Bellevue. 412-761-9500 or www.bitebistro.com

Cafe Vita: Rustic, modern Italian. Corkage fee: $5 per table for parties of eight or fewer and $10 for parties of nine or more. 424 Allegheny River Blvd., Oakmont. 412-828-5506 or www.cafevitaoakmont.com

Cibo Restaurant: Contemporary Italian. Corkage fee: $7 per bottle, no fee on Mondays. 1103 South Braddock Ave., Regent Square. 412-871-5923 or www.cibopittsburgh.com

Cure: Urban Mediterranean. Corkage fee: $3 per bottle or six-pack. 5336 Butler St., Lawrenceville. 412-252-2595 or www.curepittsburgh.com

E2 Highland Park: Rustic Mediterranean. Corkage fee: $6 per bottle. 5904 Bryant St., Highland Park. 412-441-1200 or www.e2pgh.com

Evolution Grille: Seasonal, progressive American. Corkage fee: $1 per wine bottle or six-pack. South Pike Square, 123 Mulone Drive, Sarver, Buffalo Township. 724-294-2088 or www.evolutiongrille.com

Kanok Thai Cuisine: Thai. Corkage fee: $3 per wine bottle or $1 per person for beer drinkers. 242 S. Highland Ave., Shadyside. 412-363-8888 or www.kanokcuisine.com

Out of the Fire Cafe: Seasonal new American. Corkage fee: $2 per person. 3784 State Route 31, Donegal. 724-593-4200 or www.outofthefirecafe.com

Piccolo Forno: Tuscan Italian wood-fired pizza and pastas. Corkage fee: Wine: $5 per bottle; Beer: $3 per person. 3801 Butler St., Lawrenceville. 412-622-0111 or www.piccolo-forno.com

Sausalido Bistro: Contemporary American. Corkage fee: $3 per person. 4621 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield. 412-683-4575 or www.sausalido.net

Wild Rosemary Bistro. Eclectic. Corkage fee: $2 per stem. 1469 Bower Hill Road, Upper St. Clair. 412-221-1232 or www.wildrosemary.com

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