Philadelphia: America’s BYOB City
BYO culture in Philly is unique among American cities. It came about due to the influence of the PLCB and high rent in Center City’s restaurant district. For most chefs, the choice it to either focus on their debt or focus on the food. Many opt for the later and open a small BYOB in a outlying neighborhood.
Philly’s dining culture headed with them. At this point, the grand ole restaurants (Le Bec Fin, Susanna Foo, Striped Bass) on the 1500 block of Walnut Street have been gone a long long time. It’s places like Queen Village, NoLibs, Passyunk Ave, Chinatown, East Falls, Northern Liberties, and the Gayborhood that have taken over as must-visit destinations for foodies.
Here is our current list of the top BYOB in Philly. Enjoy!
We had a few questions regarding why & how the BYO movement began in Philly: Rent for restaurants in Center City can be as high as $34K a month, while the average rent in outlining neighborhoods can be as low as $2k a month. Add to that the high cost of liquor licenses, which can cost upwards of a quarter million dollars, and the fact that restaurants cannot buy wine at wholesale (the PLCB only gives restaurants a 7% discount rather than the 30-50% discount in most other states). Some of this is changing. For updates on the current wine laws (PLCB or otherwise), check here: Wine Law in Pennsylvania.
Top Wine-Friendly BYOB
1. June BYOB
1911 E Passyunk Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19148
Our top spot for French food in Philadelphia. This lovely BYO run by the husband and wife team Richard and Christina Cusack. Rich earned his stripes at Danielle NYC and Le Bec Fin. Christina is a Level 3 Somm, and currently working on here Advanced Sommelier degree via the National Wine School. Expertly executed, this is Classical french food. A perfect accompaniment for your top bottles of wine.
161 W Girard Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19123
One of the most brilliant and innovative meals to be had in Philadelphia can be had at this BYOB. Compelling and unexpected flavors are layered into local and seasonal ingredients. Menu works very well with Spanish and natural wines.
1009 S 8th St, Philadelphia, PA 19147
Chef Pierre Calmels has been at the top of Philly’s BYO scene for over a decade. This ever-evolving tasting menu is a rare jewel. Pierre is one of the truly one of the greatest French chefs working in America today. Also, he baked me a birthday cake when they first opened, which was the coolest thing ever.
701 N 3rd St, Philadelphia, PA 19123
One of the best new BYO restaurants Philly has seen in years. Chef Matthew Gansert has learned a thing or two from his stint at Will. Well-executed dishes with subtle flavors and precise culinary technique. Unlike Will, portion sizes are on the larger size, and a tade more traditional.
5. Little Fish
746 S 6th St, Philadelphia, PA 19147
This little joint has had more locations and owners and chefs than a tiny BYO should. The idea of this restaurant has captured the imagination of nearly two decades of chefs, owners, and diners. Despite the changes, it has remained a magical little joint in Bella Vista. The perfect place to pop open your favorite whites and roses.
6. Entree BYOB
1608 South St Philadelphia, PA 19146
This is the type of BYOB that put Philly on the national food scene. A timeless menu makes this a go-to local joint.
3572 Indian Queen Ln, Philadelphia, PA 19129
For old school Italian food, we usually point our Uber towards South Philly. However, for Philly’s top Italian BYO, we now roll in the opposite direction. This East Falls focuses on Emilia-Romagna cuisine, and consistently outshines it’s peers in a city deep in gravy. While nothing on the menu would surprise the diner — veal marsala, spaghetti and clams, and Gorgonzola gnocchi are all represented — the execution and attention to detail are extraordinary. Bring your best bottle of nebbiolo or a ripasso and have a great night.
8. Umai Umai
533 N 22nd St, Philadelphia, PA 19130
Long standing BYO with an inventive menu. One of the only restaurants still remaining from the last wave of chef-run restaurants. Back in the day, this was the go-to Sushi restaurant when the Wine School of Philadelphia was located in Fairmount. The sashimi is good, but the main attraction are the hand-rolls.
1713 South St, Philadelphia, PA 19146
Pumpkin is one of the patriarchs on this list, and still going strong; both Jaxon and Will owe their existence to this little Graduate Hospital BYO. Their Sunday prixe fixe menu is a longstanding tradition, and of the best dining values in the city.
Their ala carte menu changes daily, and dinner is always a pleasure. Chef-Owner Ian Moroney (who got his start at the original Little Fish, back when his father was the chef-owner) has kept the quality very high for a remarkable amount of time. However, service has been mixed for the past few years.
10. Isot Mediterranean Cuisine
622 S 6th St Philadelphia, PA 19147
Eastern Mediterranean food is becoming a core element of the Philly restaurant scene. From the Israeli powerhouse Zahav to the Middle Eastern Spice Finch to the (deeply disappointing and over-hyped) Lebanese food of Suraya. This Turkish BYOB is a welcome addition to the Meze-explosion we are currently seeing in Philly.
Top Beer-Friendly BYOB
1535 S 11th St, Philadelphia, PA 19147
Beautiful Filipino food from a classically trained chef. The weekly eat-with-your-hands Kamayan feasts are out of this world.
2. Vientiane Bistro
2537 Kensington Ave Philadelphia, PA 19125
Classical Laotian food, with the spice and contrast of flavors that have not been watered-down. Lao cuisine is very similar to Isan (Northeastern) Thai food.
3. Jong Ka Jib
6600 N 5th St, Philadelphia, PA 19126
When done well, Soondubu will turn the most ardent meat eater into a blubbering tofu-lover. This Korean dish is comprised of two main components: a bowl of rice and another bowl of stew. Each is served in a lava-hot bowl. Whisk the supplied raw egg into the stew, pop open a few pilsners, and you are ready to begin your journey into a whole new way of eating. And the place you need to do this is Jong Ka Jib in Oak Lane.
4. Parada Maimon
345 N 12th St, Philadelphia, PA 19107
The spot for Caribbean food in Philly, in particular Dominican cuisine. The highlight here is the excellent mofongo.
5. El Limon
103 Spring Mill Ave, Conshohocken, PA 19428
This is the penultimate family run restaurant. Just stepping over the threshold feels like entering your abuela’s kitchen. There are several locations now, but this is still the best (although the one in Ardmore is dangerously close to the Tired Hands brewery). The main attraction here is the shrimp burritos, and the tacos are legit
6. Apricot Stone
1040 N American St, Ste 601, Philadelphia, PA 19123
There is more to the mediterranean than Italy, France, and Spain. The eastern shores are better known as the Middle East, and some of the oldest cuisines in the world. This NoLibs BYO offers up stellar Syrian food. Similar to Israeli and Middleeaster food cuisine in general, you will see falafel, kebabs, and hummus on the menu. However, the execution at this BYO is exceptional.
7. Saté Kampar
1837 E Passyunk Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19148
Authentic Malaysian food on Passyunk Ave. It’s all about the meat skewers.
8. Los Gallos
951 Wolf St, Philadelphia, PA 19148
The Mexican joint all South Philly taquerias are judged by. Tacos and salsas to live by. Just don’t expect to find street parking nearby.
9. China Gourmet
2842 St Vincent Street Philadelphia, PA 19149
The Dim-Sum Mecca of Philadelphia. The Northeast has become the center for Cantonese food in the region.
10. Terakawa Ramen
204 N 9th St, Philadelphia, PA 19107
You can’t go wrong with a bowl of handmade wavy noodles and pork bone soup that’s been simmering for 48 hours. Umami-rich flavors that can be cranked up with a hit of chili, or toned down with ground sesame. A few standouts are the Tan Tan Ramen and the Kyushu Danji.
Cooking and Culinary Classes
Off the Best BYO List
These BYOB restaurants have been pulled from the Best Restaurant list for one of two reasons: they are no longer in business, or the quality of their offerings has fallen off.
For sheer brilliance, their isn’t a place better than Will. Chris Kearse is one of the most innovative chefs working in Philly today. Small portions, perfect execution, and compelling preparations make this a go-to restaurant for everyone in the know.
Back in the oughts, the BYO scene in Philly was happening like nothing else on the East Coast. The level of creativity and passion and endless chefs wanting to make a name for themselves was staggering. There was a system in place for chefs to earn their stripes. Most worked their way up through the ranks of the Vetri or Perrier culinary empires. Opened a BYO, and launched their career.
That isn’t happening as much anymore. The economy sucks, commercial rents are rising in many neighborhoods. There are fewer talented cooks willing to toil for the low wages that come with salaried restaurant work.
It seems that Olde Kensington is the place where the BYO scene can still exist in it’s former glory.
Helm is a ridiculously good restaurant. Creative and intuitive menus that offer elements of farm-to-table without it seeming coy or reductive. Flavors are well thought through and exciting. Highly recommended.
Collingswood has a well-deserved reputation of fostering a Philly-like BYO scene. L’Oceano is the best of the bunch. The ala carte menu is eclectic, and a bit out of step with modern trends. For instance, the current menu offers lobster mac and cheese, grilled caesar salad, pork shank, and maple glazed salmon: all dishes more commonly offered a decade ago.
Nothing wrong with a little bit of retro cuisine. After all, who can say no to a lobster corndog? Plus, they do a great Crab Gravy Dinner on Sundays.
There is a lot of sushi in Philly. Sadly, there isn’t much good sushi in Philly. Like most Sushi joints in Philly, this one isn’t Japanese, but Korean. The style is more robust and a greater focus on signature rolls and sauces. However, Doma takes the gold because of it’s traditional sashimi, which relies on freshness and execution.
Skip the bbq and head straight to the classic hotpot. The all-you-can-eat element may seem a bit Middle America, but it’s a custom in China and Korea. This is the Korean style hotpot, aka Shabu Shabu. Ordering the Benz pot which allows you to try three of the soups for the same price. The pig bone, tomato, and spicy soups are the way to go, and make sure to hit the condiment station, too.
This is the one of the few restaurants in Philly that cooks from an authentically Italian place. This is quintessential Southern Italian food, Molise in particular.
Off the list due to customer service issues
Let’s get this out of the way, yes, Nick Elmi won Top Chef. Yes, it’s now almost impossible to get a reservation. Yes, there are only a dozen seats in this restaurant. That said, go anyways. Plead, threaten, or pitch a fit. Just get a reservation. Nick has a delicate and elegant touch with ingredients that is as rare as it is refreshing. His dishes are often subtle and winsome. Is he the Robert Frost of chefs?
No longer a BYOB
Nomad Pizza Company
This is simply the best pizza in Philly. Let’s be clear: this isn’t Philly-style pizza (aka Greek pizza or Tomato Pie). This is traditional Neapolitan pizza. The crust is better than most drugs, so be warned. Bring your bottles of Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo.
The most awesome Art Etchells pointed out that Nomad in Philly now has a liquor license. The original in Hopewell, NJ is still a BYO.
Joseph Scarpone may be a local boy, but he spent years cooking in Napa Valley. He returned to Philly to open the critically acclaimed Sovalo in NoLibs in 2008. He brings a lot of his cal-ital finesse to Ulivio, but the stress is now firmly on the Ital, not the Cal.
Sadly, Ulivo closed. Mr. Scarpone, you will be missed.
The Farm and Fisherman
One of the failings of most BYO is service and ambiance. A tiny chef-run restaurant will put out amazing food, but there is often no budget for a General Manager, who would be able to run the front of the house. That can mean the occasional misstep or quirky experience. That is not the case here. Along with a well-designed dining room, the waitstaff is excellent. The food is extraordinary, to boot.
The Farm and Fisherman Closed
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