Over the summer, I was in Portland, Maine with my brother and one of my best friends, and we stopped at a 7-Eleven to pick out some snacks only to stumble upon an absurdly large selection of craft beers in the local convenience store. I was so taken aback, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. In comparison to many other states, Pennsylvania’s alcohol laws seem outrageously bad. This is why many restaurants in Philadelphia — and frankly, all across the Keystone State — are BYOB (the acronym used to represent “Bring Your Own Bottle”) and love to announce it to their customers. With “dry January” in effect for many, a place without any temptations may be really inviting. But which places are really worth going to, with or without the alcohol?
While the semantics can be argued that the choice of what to take to a BYO* determines the restaurant, there is a lot to be said about eating at an amazing restaurant only to later discover that it is, in fact, alcohol-free. (*Common usage of the acronym dictates that the second “B” in BYOB be dropped, due to the rise in craft beers being served in cans.) In Philadelphia, there seems to be at least one top-notch BYO in every neighborhood, so to refrain from this article becoming a veritable Philly BYO index, this is merely the low-down on where to go for the best food that Philly BYOs have to offer. While the food will be figured out after reading this, the drinks will inevitably be up to you!
The first place that folks turn to in Philadelphia when it comes to BYO places seems to depend on cuisine, price range and simply what you’re in the mood for. So let’s start with the winners, shall we?
Back in 2015, Helm won The Thrillist Awards: Philadelphia’s Best Food & Drink of 2015 award for Best Restaurant. Out of all the restaurants with highly lauded cocktails, craft beer and natural wine lists, a place such as Helm won with the experience and the food carrying the load. But after you take a look at the cozy Olde Kensington spot, you realize how special it is. Their menu is so local and frequently updated that it is written on a blackboard in the restaurant itself. They only use locally raised vegetables and properly raised meats.
Chefs Kevin D’Egidio and Michael Griffiths choose to showcase the harvests of local farmers while bringing a high-quality dining experience to their customers. It’s hard not to love a place like this, when literally everything they serve at Helm will be as good as it possibly can be.
Another award-winning spot is Philly Magazine’s Best New BYO of 2019: Sarvida. This Fishtown spot is helping the rise in Filipino food and culture that is appearing in and around Philadelphia. They offer three categories of dishes: Pulutan, the snacks; Salo Salo, the sharable small plates and La Mesa, the large entrees. However, while the dishes are broken up into these categories, they are all meant to be shared. Everything ordered — from the lumpiang shanghai to the inasal na manok to the escabeche — is meant for the table, for everyone’s enjoyment. And according to all of the Philly food critics, every dish that Sarvida puts out is something you want to eat.
Following the Filipino BYO trend, another highly regarded spot is Perla. This spot located on East Passyunk Ave is open five days a week, with three of those days — Thursday, Friday and Saturday — being dedicated to their “A la Carte Menu.” On Wednesdays and Sundays, however, they offer their $40 per person Kamayan Family Style Menu. On Wednesdays, a minimum of two people is needed for an order; on Sundays, a minimum of four people is needed! The food is eaten with your hands and ordered for the table, as you share the beverages you may or may not have brought to accompany the six dishes and dessert.
Another East Passyunk Ave gem is Sate Kampar, which won Philly Magazine’s Best New BYO Award back in 2016. This spot hones its menu around its namesake, the popular Malaysian street food sate. Not only does Sate Kampar’s food menu cover sides, shareables and a few more staple Malaysian dishes, but it also boasts one of the best non-alcoholic drink menus in Philly. From drinking out of a coconut to Malaysian cold drinks to a bountiful list of coffees and teas, there is no shortage of an out of the ordinary drink choice here. Just hold the alcohol.
The final Asian-forward BYO is Vientiane. Vientiane Bistro is tucked away in Kensington while Vientiane Cafe is nestled in West Philly, but both of their outposts are bringing Laotian food to Philadelphia! For those who aren’t familiar, it is quite similar to Isan, or northeastern Thai food. You’ll find many familiar dishes on the menus, but there will also be options like sai-gawk (homemade Laotian sausages), gang-naw-mai (bamboo stew) and more.
Moving across the globe in terms of cuisine, there are a couple Mediterranean BYOs that Philly openly welcomes. The first is Audrey Claire in Rittenhouse Square, as this cash-only spot on 20th and Spruce Streets is famous for its open-kitchen experience and their $45 prix fare meal is known as one of Philly’s best. They’ve been around the neighborhood for 24 years now, and residents of Rittenhouse never want it to leave. If you don’t go for the prix fare, their swordfish kebab and hummus with laffa never fail.
The second spot is Apricot Stone, a Northern Liberties place firing on all cylinders with their execution of authentic Syrian food. While the dishes are very similar in preparation to most Mediterranean cultures, there is a level of touch and spice needed to showcase the cooking of Syria. Thankfully, Chef Fimy Ishkhanian learned from watching her mother cook in Aleppo as she grew up and is now passing on what she learned to the people of Philadelphia. While this restaurant has been open for only three and change years, Chef Fimy has created an immediate favorite with Apricot Stone.
It would be sacrilegious to not talk about Italian spots in Philly, right? Thankfully, there are a few Italian BYOs here, too. The first is A Mano, the Fairmount spot that is doing just about everything right. They offer family-sized portions for a very reasonable price or a personal portion of all their pastas and entrees to better suit the mood. The go-to? Their four-course, $65 per person family-style dinner that changes with the seasons.
Or you could head down to Melograno on 20th and Sansom Streets, and get yourself some outrageously good ossobuco, with pappardelle, wild mushrooms, a wild boar ragu and polenta to bat. But when they have branzino as their daily fish, it’s too good to pass up.
One of the final two BYOs to talk about is Little Fish. Little Fish is a Queen Village favorite since 2016, where the seafood-oriented chef Alex Yoon has been rotating his menu to accommodate the fresh foods he gets in his kitchen. There are almost always fresh oysters, and you’ll start every meal at Little Fish with some insanely good bread. You just have to go to find out what’s the catch of the day!
While there are Asian and European BYOs galore in Philadelphia, this week’s “Hidden Gem” winner is none of those. In fact, it is a Dominican spot, located just a few blocks north of the Reading Terminal Market, called Parada Maimon. With a menu that spans longer than some city blocks, out of this world mofongo and a list of fresh juices that render alcoholic beverages practically moot, Parada Maimon invites you to sit down and try a taste of old-school Dominican cooking. Try anything from the pasteles en hoja de cerdo to the chicharron de pollo sin hueso, to ending your meal with flan or tres leches. Anything you get will be made with love and full of flavor, and unlike many BYOs, Parada Maimon fits into your budget almost too easily. This spot takes it.
Now that you know where to go for places without any alcohol, next week’s topic will be where to go without any meats! Check in next Friday to read about the best vegetarian spots Philly has to offer!