BYO culture in Philly is unique amount American cities. It came about due to the influence of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and high rent in Center City’s restaurant district. 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).
For most chefs, the choice it to either focus on their debt or focus on the food. Most opt for the later and open a small BYOB in a outlying neighborhood. And everyone in Philly followed them. At this point, the grand ole restaurants (Le Bec Fin, Susanna Foo, Striped Bass) on the 1500 block of Walnut Street have been long a long time. It’s places like Queen Village, NoLibs, Passyunk Ave, China Town, 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!
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.
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?
Chef Pierre Calmels is no longer splitting his time between Bibou and Le Cheri, and that makes this BYOB –and it’s new tasting menu–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.
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.
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.
Dutch food doesn’t have the same cache as Belgian. Bitterballen just doesn’t sound as sexy Moules-frites.However, here is Craig Leban’s take on Noord: “the soulful flavors of Lachman’s hand-spun ode to the North Sea were so apparent in my meals, not to mention the pure joy this native Philadelphian radiates at being back after a decade in Chicago, that I couldn’t help but appreciate the rare virtues Noord brings to our dining scene.” Yeah, that it enough for me, too.
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.
Nan Zhou Noodle House
Bring your best bottles of Savoie and Alsatian Riesling. The noodles are hand drawn, which makes dishes like the Lamb Noodle Soup a must-eat in Philly. This is a lively and inexpensive restaurant in Chinatown, with fluorescent lighting and sturdy tables. It is also the home to some of the best noodles you will ever eat. This joint should be on your bucket list, not just your BYO list.
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.
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.
Ulivo 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.