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Let diners bring own bottles, say councilors

Plan may rile holders of liquor licenses

Janice Santarpio served pre-dinner wine to a table outside Rosaria's Steakhouse in Saugus last summer.
Janice Santarpio served pre-dinner wine to a table outside Rosaria's Steakhouse in Saugus last summer.(John Blanding/Globe Staff)

No liquor license? No problem.

Two city councilors want to introduce a new concept to Boston restaurants: BYOB, or “bring your own bottle” of wine or beer.

The phenomenon has flourished in Philadelphia and Chicago and was recently adopted in Brookline. Proponents say BYOB makes it easier for budding chefs to open neighborhood spots. In Boston, liquor licenses are scarce commodities, often prohibitively expensive for small restaurants.

But the BYOB idea could spark a backlash from established restaurateurs who made significant investments to buy liquor licenses, which cost up to $75,000 for wine and beer and $375,000 for a full bar.

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“The goal is to help smaller restaurants who can’t afford a liquor license,” said Councilor Michelle Wu, who, with Councilor Stephen Murphy, is sponsoring a measure expected to be considered by the council this week. “Really, this is about lowering barriers to entry.”

Murphy and Wu said their proposal targets BYOB for neighborhoods that don’t have a vibrant dining scene, not existing destinations such as Newbury Street or the Seaport.

That approach has worked elsewhere, said Eli Feldman, owner of Three Princes Consulting and Clothbound technology, both of which focus on the hospitality industry.

“Other cities have shown that smaller restaurants can open in newer, less-established neighborhoods where BYOB is allowed,” Feldman said.

The best example may be Philadelphia, where BYOB has become such a part of the culture that diners arrive at fine restaurants with chilled sauvignon blanc in insulated wine totes.

The website Visit Philadelphia devotes an entire section to highlight dozens of BYOB restaurants, which range from the laid-back taqueria Honest Tom’s Taco Shop to Melograno, an upscale Italian trattoria.

“BYOB is a very robust niche within the dining experience in this city, which has just exploded,” said Mark S. McDonald, press secretary to Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter. “They tend to be small restaurants with very creative cuisine and chefs. It’s quite a phenomenon.”

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Boston could embrace BYOB restaurants without approval from the Legislature, a rare quirk in a state where even inconsequential Boston initiatives require the blessing of Beacon Hill. City Council approval is needed — after the public has its say at a hearing.

The measure would also require the signature of Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who expressed skepticism but said he was “open to the idea.” In an interview Friday, Walsh said he had not spoken to councilors and needed to do more research.

“It could be a game changer in the way we do business in Boston,” Walsh said. “We want to look at it, but I know for a fact I am not interested in opening it up across the board in the city of Boston. We have a lot of restaurant and bar owners who invest heavily in the liquor licenses for their premises.”

The proposal would end the city’s longtime prohibition against customers bringing alcohol into restaurants that do not have liquor licenses. It would then direct the Boston Licensing Board, which is controlled by the mayor, to create rules to regulate BYOB establishments.

The Licensing Board would determine the type of alcohol — wine, beer, or spirits — that could be brought in by customers. The board would also dictate other requirements, such as whether establishments could charge customers “corkage fees” for drinking their own beverages.

“I think there will be heavy opposition,” said Charles M. Perkins, a broker who has sold 575 restaurants. “They are going to get a lot of flak for that from people who just spent $400,000 on a liquor license.”

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The state has a strict cap on the number of Boston liquor licenses, which accounts for the sky-high prices, said Perkins, who founded Boston Restaurant Group.

Murphy said he expected push back, especially from restaurant owners who fear the change could jeopardize the value of their liquor licenses.

“We’re trying to make our business districts more successful. The more successful a business district, the more successful a neighborhood,” Murphy said. “I think that outweighs the individual objection of a license owner.”

BYOB has been successful elsewhere in Massachusetts and is allowed in Needham, Rockland, and Westborough, said Steve Clark of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association.

“If you had a BYOB place on Newbury Street or the Seaport, there would be opposition to that,” Clark said. “In some of the neighborhoods where economic development is needed, it could work if done right.”

One rising restaurateur with an interest in BYOB is Patrick Lynch. In 2011, Lynch and his wife offered their own twist on Vietnamese cuisine with Bon Me, which was one of Boston’s first food trucks.

Bon Me has grown from a staff of seven to a company with 100 employees, five food trucks, and two restaurants, including a new location near the Boston Children’s Museum in Fort Point. BYOB could help entrepreneurial chefs.

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“It would allow more small restaurants to get their start and be a lot more popular with customers,” Lynch said. “That would do a lot to improve the variety of restaurants in Boston.”

Feldman, said Boston is big enough to accommodate traditional liquor licenses and BYOB.

“It creates a more robust and dynamic dining scene that benefits everybody,” Feldman said. “The places that sell liquor, wine, and beer will always have a dramatic advantage over the place where someone has to go out and buy it themselves and bring it in.”

Related:

Dante Ramos: For the price of a Boston liquor license... oh, never mind

Editorial: To revive city’s Main Streets, get more liquor licenses

Editorial: New liquor licenses raise hopes of restaurant-driven revival


Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.