In Chicago, “BYO” used to be synonymous with bare-bones ethnic storefronts. Now it’s a winning formula for a crop of ambitious chef-owners who offer an attractive combination of BYO and upscale fare. Here are six places where you can enjoy an inventive meal and your own bottle, all while paying little to no corkage.
1466 N. Ashland Ave.
THE FARE: Eclectic American dishes prepared by an adventurous young chef in a tiny Ashland Avenue storefront. Call now; eat sometime in the fall.
BYO PHILOSOPHY: “It has been that format for the last three restaurants [in the space]. We liked the idea,” says chef Michael Carlson. “I’m told that if we wanted to get [a liquor license], a lot of people would help us get one. But in this space, storage of wine and wineglasses would become an issue.”
EXPECT TO SEE: A group of young chefs-who’ve come to scope out Carlson’s skills-pouring a different wine per course
3404 N. Halsted St.
THE FARE: Contemporary American dishes like soft-shell crab over a feta/water-melon salad share a menu with global concoctions inspired by chef Joncarl Lachman’s travels through Europe and the Middle East.
BYO PHILOSOPHY: “I like to think of the restaurant as ‘Come to our home for dinner; bring your wine,’” says Lachman. “In addition, we happen to have only one bathroom. Apparently it is an old Chicago law that you need two bathrooms to have a liquor license. It might not be true, but that is what I’ve been told.”
EXPECT TO SEE: A Boystown couple sharing a bottle of Château Lalande-Borie Saint-Julien, 1999
2235 N. Western Ave.
THE FARE: From the outside, this West Buck-town storefront looks like a flower shop. Inside, chef Omar Rodriguez serves generous portions of seafood and pasta by candlelight.
BYO PHILOSOPHY: “My alderman asked me what I thought about a liquor license,” says Rodriguez. “At this point, my wife [co-owner Ryvkah Joy Goodman] and I think it would hurt our business because people in the city recognize us for fine dining and BYOB. It is more economic. Also, we have some clients who have their own personal cellars.”
EXPECT TO SEE: A group of 30-something women drinking bottles of Yellow Tail
The Parrot Cage
7059 South Shore Drive
THE FARE: Chef Ricky Moore’s experiment in the South Shore Cultural Center. With Washburne Culinary College students, Moore turns out items like tamarind short ribs and brick-grilled chicken with olives.
BYO PHILOSOPHY: “We’re waiting on our liquor license,” says Moore, a veteran of South Water Kitchen. “The only thing our fabulous Sunday brunch [served once a month] is missing is a Bloody Mary.”
EXPECT TO SEE: A trio of diners who didn’t know the restaurant was BYO and couldn’t locate a liquor store nearby
1851 W. Addison St.
THE FARE: Chef Theo Gilbert pairs regional produce, Midwestern cheeses, and hand-cranked pasta in this Roscoe Village storefront next door to a dry cleaner.
BYO PHILOSOPHY: “We have no linens on the tables, we’re BYO with no corkage, and even if we get a liquor license, we will offer beautiful [wines] by the glass and stay BYO,” says Gilbert, a veteran of Spiaggia and Trattoria No. 10. “Part of what we’re trying to do here is show people that the choices they make every day really support the culinary economy, from regional farmers to chefs. It’s easy to do if we don’t make it too expensive.”
EXPECT TO SEE: A single neighborhood diner drinking Fontégo, the proprietary blend of Italian winemaker La Cappuccina
Coast Sushi Bar
2045 N. Damen Ave.
THE FARE: This Bucktown sushi joint-which buzzes with activity even on Mondays-dishes up electronica on the stereo and signature maki rolls to a see-and-be-seen crowd.
BYO PHILOSOPHY: “It was more like a forced decision,” says assistant manager Claudia Anisko. “We weren’t eligible because of ordinance restrictions in our area-there was a library across the street that catered to children. They since have moved. So we’re looking to apply for a liquor license. From then on, we’ll no longer be BYOB. But that’s maybe six months away.”
EXPECT TO SEE: A sharply dressed pair easing their date jitters over a bottle of Grey Goose
*If each diner’s tab exceeds $15; $5 per person if it’s less
Photograph: Todd Urban