The World of Food: BYOB

By Julia Maish |

Discuss >

This week, Check, Please! focuses its spotlight on a compendium of local restaurants reviewed on the show that have one important thing in common. They all offer budget-conscious diners an option that is very popular here in the Windy City: BYOB, or Bring Your Own Bottle (also known as Bring Your Own Booze, Beer, or Beverage). How popular? To date, in the Windy City and its surrounding suburbs, there are more than 5,000 of these establishments. So many options, too little time!

If you have lived in the Chicago area for most of your adult life, you might think that BYOB is a standard practice everywhere. This is not the case; in fact, Chicago is one of the few major U.S. metropolitan areas that encourages diners to make their own brought-from-home-or-store alcoholic beverages part of the dining experience. Why is that?

Some of it has to do with the ease (or lack thereof) of a business acquiring a liquor license. Each city seems to do it a bit differently. In Chicago, as many restaurateurs can tell you, this is a time-consuming, complicated, headache-inducing, and rigorous process, designed to weed out any applicant who is not a “responsible” business owner. (To give you some idea of how rigorous, there’s a helpful 90-minute video provided by the city, just to get you started.) This is partly a reaction to the Prohibition era back in the 1920s and early ’30s, when Chicago was overrun with gangsters, bootleggers, and speakeasies. A fun time, if you believe our hip flask-toting grandparents and their fond memories of bathtub gin, but lawless and frequently dangerous (hello, St. Valentine’s Day Massacre).

A common scene during Prohibition

There are various categories of licenses (tavern, packaged goods store, consumption-on-premises, non-profit club, city caterer, and outside-of-city caterer) and some sub-categories having to do with patios and late hours, plus special licenses governing Wrigley Rooftops and Navy Pier. (Interestingly, there is no license needed specifically to operate a BYOB, but the city does strongly recommend liability insurance in case of inebriation-related injuries.) As you can surely imagine, there are fairly hefty fees associated with each of these, plus renewal costs, but if your establishment is “within 100 feet of a school, church, hospital, home for the aged, or library,” your application will be denied no matter what (there are a few creative ways to get around this requirement, such as an interior pass-through from a license-holding tavern to a performance venue, for example, but acceptance may vary according to the circumstances). Also, if a restaurateur has any objections to being fingerprinted or is an actual convicted felon, their application will likely be a non-starter.

In some cities (think New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington DC), you can’t even consume alcohol (theirs, yours, or anybody else’s) in an establishment unless a liquor license is in place. No license, and you’re having soft drinks or fancy non-alcoholic lemonades and iced teas with your meal. There are other cities that do allow BYOB with no license, but in places where the licenses are easier to come by (Texas, for instance), restaurants that have them generally require you to purchase your alcohol from them. As is the case in Chicago, these licenses cost big bucks, so you can’t really blame them for wanting to recoup that, not to mention the expense of maintaining their wine cellars.

So, supposing a restaurant has a liquor license and you bring your own wine, there might be another hoop to jump through: if your wine happens to be on the restaurant’s wine list, it’s possible that you will be required to order it from them and save your own for another time (hint: perhaps it would be a good idea to check online first). If the restaurant doesn’t stock it and you insist on having the wine that you brought, they may (and probably will) charge you a corkage fee. So, their wine, or your wine with a corkage fee? You will need to decide if the price differential is worth it.

Up until about ten years ago, the rule in Chicago was that unless a dining establishment had a liquor license, they were prohibited from charging a corkage fee. Now, it’s entirely at the restaurant’s discretion. So be prepared to ante up, just in case.

The good news: for the most part, BYOB restaurants tend to be casual, welcoming, neighborhood places, catering to diners who aren’t looking for an upscale, formal culinary experience. If you’re someone who likes to dine out in jeans and sweatshirt at a place that is 100% focused on the food, a BYOB eatery might be just right for you. And many restaurateurs, more than happy to avoid the city’s Byzantine licensing process, wouldn’t have it any other way.