Brown Bag City

In Spring 2014 by Arielle PardesLeave a Comment

- Arielle Pardes

The wine glass teetered on its stem, threatening to tip and topple to the floor. But just as the glass was seized by gravity, Michael McGovern, the server, materialized to save it.

This isn’t a typical night for McGovern, who waits tables at Las Cazuelas. The mid-sized Mexican restaurant sits on the edge of Northern Liberties and is lauded for both its authentic cuisine and charming aesthetic. McGovern began working as a server in March and can carry three full plates of enchiladas on one arm and recite the menu with a flawless Spanish accent.

Tonight, he’s serving the upstairs portion of the restaurant, where every table is filled. At the end of one of the long tables, a crumpled brown bag emerges. Unsheathed is a large handle of Tortilla Gold tequila, gleaming under the soft lights of the restaurant.

Beyond offering authentic Mexican cuisine, Las Cazuelas — like many restaurants in Philadelphia — allows diners to BYO, or bring their own booze. Tonight, a raucous group of students from the University of Pennsylvania has arrived with rivers of tequila, and they have filled out the entire top floor of the restaurant. The sound of plates clattering is drowned by students yelling across the table and demanding (presumably to McGovern): “Margaritaaaaaaaaa!”

Normally, Las Cazuelas is much calmer. Its location in far-flung Northern Liberties makes it a trek from the University of Pennsylvania or Drexel University, whose students constitute a sizeable chunk of Philadelphia’s collegiate BYO crowd. More often, Las Cazuelas serves groups of families or couples, typically middle-aged and quiet.

Still, McGovern says that the tables are consistently filled with BYO booze.

“I’d say the majority of people bring their own drink” — fat bottles of wine or handles of tequila in silver, auburn, and gold.

* * * *

Philadelphia’s prominent BYO scene came from unlikely roots: repressive liquor laws and high liquor taxation. Distribution of liquor licenses in Pennsylvania is governed by the statewide Quota Law, which limits one retail liquor license for every three thousand inhabitants of a county. As of 2012, Philadelphia counted a population of a million and a half — leaving just about 500 allowable liquor licenses.

This moratorium on liquor licenses forced new restaurants to purchase liquor licenses from closing restaurants, for fees running as high as $300,000. Then, when former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell signed off on a ten percent tax on alcoholic drinks in 1994, it seemed that Philadelphia’s food-and-drink scene was doomed. Restaurant owners lamented it as a “nail on the coffin” for the restaurant industry. But the up-charge on alcohol didn’t doom eateries at all — if anything, it enhanced them.

Restaurants who couldn’t find (or pay for) licenses finally gave up on the idea of serving their own. Instead, they invited their customers to do so.

And so the BYO scene was born. There were fewer than five BYOs in 1995. Now, there are over 250. The bring-your-own phenomenon has replaced the cheesesteak as the emblem of Philadelphia food culture, and Philadelphia has arguably become the best city on the east coast for underage drinking.

* * * *

At Las Cazuelas tonight, not a single patron at the boisterous table has been asked for an ID. The tequila flows generously as McGovern refills plastic jugs with ice and liquor before topping them off with margarita mix.

“We check IDs when we have to, but for the most part, we as a staff feel we can trust our customers, and tend to not make a big deal about it,” says McGovern with a shrug.

Suddenly, someone pulls out a portable boom box from a backpack. The college crowd goes wild. The willowy Spanish serenades, spilling from speakers in the corner of the restaurant, are drowned out by Destiny’s Child, who loudly proclaim that “It’s eleven thirty and the club is jumpin’, jumpin’.”

In Las Cazuelas, however, it’s far earlier. At just a quarter after eight, the dinner crowd is filling in and the BYOers are already stumbling out drunk.

One of the waitresses rolls her eyes and elbows an inebriated student, stumbling through the middle of the restaurant. She nearly drops a platter and shoots a sharp glance at the big table of students before huffing along her way.

Unlike attending on-campus parties or visiting clubs, BYOs strike a peculiar balance between the civilities of dining out and the bedlam of deliberately getting drunk.

“At a BYO, the drinking is gradual, so by the time you leave it’s like, ‘Wow, we’re really drunk,’” explained Rebecca Brown, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. “A lot of the time, people think they’re less drunk than they are and when it’s time to leave, it can be really bad.”

In especially bad situations, incapacitated students who cannot swipe into their dorms or stand up on their own are rescued by Penn’s Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT). This group sends highly inebriated students to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. BYOs are a common source of the drunkenness.

It’s the drinking, rather than dining, that becomes the linchpin of a BYO evening. Whether it’s at the respected Italian eatery Bistro La Baia, which touches the corners of Rittenhouse Square, or at the rowdy Charles Plaza, where restaurant-owner Charles will readily take shots with customers, the food is second to the booze. Once the meal is over, there may be some squabbling over the bill as twenty-dollar bills are exchanged, but then it’s settled and the drinking continues.

As Brown put it: “BYOs are just another way to pre-game.”

One evening at Banana Leaf, a Malaysian restaurant popular among large groups of boisterous college students, a table unsheathed a brown bag of Banker’s Club vodka. With gleaming eyes, the table shouted “Shots!” and the handle was passed around the table, leaving silver droplets in its path. They poured dribbles into empty water glasses and downed the liquor, chasing with noodles and fried rice.

It was a fraternity party in a three-star restaurant.

* * * *

Not every BYO restaurant bids the hullabaloo of a college party. Reducing the rowdiness of BYO culture may, in fact, be as simple as consistently checking for IDs.

On a recent trip to Tampopo, a Japanese-Korean restaurant in the heart of University City, Gabriel Ojeda-Sague was surprised to hear the waitress ask for identification.

“We asked for a bottle opener for our beers, and she told us she needed to see our IDs,” said Ojeda-Sague, who is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania. “While we were trying to decide if we were going to leave or not, the waitress got frustrated and said, ‘Oh, is it just Corona?’”

They nodded and the waitress acquiesced. “Just keep it quiet,” she told them.

Other restaurants cater to a more mature clientele by demanding steep corkage fees, which invariably ward off clunky bottles of Yellowtail or boxes of Frazia. Among them are Bibou and Fond, which were both mentioned in Food & Wine’s guide to Philadelphia dining for their impressive culinary offerings (they serve French and American cuisine, respectively). José Garces’ namesake restaurant, Garces Trading Company, allows diners to choose from their extensive wine cellar or to bring their own — but charges a $10 corkage fee, dissuading any cheap vino from their tables. There’s also Lolita (the original “BYOT” — bring-your-own-tequila), Marigold Kitchen (with a pricey pre-fixe menu), and Audrey Claire (rumored to be among the first BYOs in the city).

Whether high or low culture, the BYO scene has somehow democratized fine dining in Philadelphia. The Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation made it the focal point of their marketing campaign, asserting, “Brown bagging is chic,” and naming Philadelphia “the place to”

Arielle PardesBrown Bag City

Leave a Comment