Thomas Orr's got a favorite bottle of wine.
It’s an unpretentious Bordeaux: Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s Mouton Cadet.
“It’s a $12 bottle of wine, but you never see it on a menu,” said Orr, a retired schoolteacher. “I’m certainly not a wine connoisseur, but I do like good wine, and I like to choose my own.”
That’s why he likes going to The Market, a Columbus restaurant. It’s one of only two restaurants in town where patrons can bring their own wine, beer or liquor with them.
But his days of doing that may be numbered. The city stopped permitting new establishments to get the so-called “brown bag” permits in 2003, when 16 bars and restaurants had the license. The number has dwindled to nine, with only two being restaurants.
The Market has been a destination seafood restaurant on 17th Avenue, near Manchester Expressway, for years. But its owner and chef Jamie Gruber is opening a new location downtown, maybe as early as next week, and he won’t be able to tote the brown bag license with him.
He hasn’t decided, for certain, if he’ll close the old location. If he does, Rose Hill Seafood will be the only restaurant allowing diners to enjoy the drink of their choice without a traditional restaurant markup.
“The way the law is written, it’s really written to get rid of it completely,” Gruber said of the brown bag law. In his mother’s town, Philadelphia, brown-bagging wine is entrenched in the dinner culture, he said. Many places charge a small corkage fee to BYOB’ers. “I think it’s kind of sad that Columbus got rid of it,” he said.
He charges no corkage fee, but he provides wine glasses, a corkscrew, and, if you’re bringing a white wine, a bucket of ice. At the new Market , Gruber will be licensed to sell beer, wine and liquor. But if he had his druthers, he’d just get a new brown bag license there.
Cheaper to bring it
Convenience and cost are the two biggest reasons.
“It’s far cheaper to bring your own wine than to buy by the bottle or glass at the restaurant,” Orr said.
It’s a fact confirmed by Dinnie Jeter, owner of Cascade Package Store on River Road. “At some restaurants, you’re paying three times what that wine costs just to have it served to you.”
A lot of the markup is pure profit. Some of it is to cover the costs of a restaurant’s licenses and insurance, which escalate depending on how much alcohol they pour.
“The one concern I have for people, in the kind of economy we’re in, is the meal will get too expensive for them to go out to dinner,” Gruber said. “Everybody’s watching their money. Is their favorite seafood place suddenly too expensive now?”
He plans to stock a wide array of wines at the new restaurant, from the inexpensive to the premiere.
It may seem like an innocuous thing, to allow patrons to choose their own favorite wine and bring it to an eatery.
“It’s just a nice convenience to have,” said diner Hugh Rodgers. “You can select a nice table wine somewhere from a retail store and bring it with you.” He and his wife, Sandra, shared lobster tail appetizers with Orr at The Market last week. The Rodgers brought the wine, so Orr drank their Kendall Jackson chardonnay instead of his Bordeaux.
Ban addressed concerns
The brown bag law was old, predating an almost 40-year-old county vote to allow establishments to sell liquor by the drink.
There were problems with brown baggers when the practice was more prevalent. In the 1990s, police voiced concerns about being able to monitor whether underage patrons were sneaking pours of booze into their sodas. Busineses adjacent to rougher brown-bag bars complained about broken bottles and trash in their parking lots after weekend nights.
In December 2003, the Columbus Council voted without dissent to issue no more permits. The existing 16 businesses could continue renewing their permits, but if the store moved or ownership changed, the bar or restaurant would forfeit the $100-per-year license forever.
The seven bars that still hold the licenses today all also carry beer and wine licenses, but not more expensive liquor licenses. For them, having a brown bag permit allows patrons who want whiskey or other harder drinks to bring their own to their favorite club. The club typically sells mixers, so even if you’re pouring your own Jack Daniels and Coke at Lil Kim’s Cove, for instance, the soda and ice will set you back $2.50.
The two restaurants with the permits — Rose Hill and The Market — use the permits to allow their patrons to have alcohol with their meal without having to fool with stocking it or paying for a full-fledged liquor license for as much as $5,000 a year.
With new businesses, the city’s decision essentially means, “If you want to serve alcohol, you have to qualify and get a standard permit just like any other establishment,” said Yvonne Ivey, the city ’s occupational tax supervisor.
And that may leave patrons wistful for the days when they could wander in with their own bottles.
“It’s a disservice, not to be able to brown bag,” Orr said. “Often restaurants won’t have what you want.”