When I made plans to dine out with some friends recently, I asked one of them, the biggest restaurant geek of my social circle, if we should bring a bottle or two along for the meal. He could not have sounded more aghast if I suggested we dine and dash.

Fear of impropriety aside, plenty of diners love BYOB because it keeps the dinner tab low. That’s the same reason, however, that servers and owners can be wary of the practice, since restaurants, with their narrow profit margins, make the bulk of their money on booze. Obviously it’s not a diner’s job to worry about an establishment’s finances, but if the house is willing to let you bypass the wine markup, it seems only fair to abide by the unspoken etiquette of bringing your own.

But how to navigate that etiquette when it’s, you know, unspoken? 

An unofficial survey of local somms, servers, and managers around town elicited a litany of horror stories: parties of six that show up with a case of wine, lousy tips, and even lousier bottles clearly procured from the nearest mini mart. But also—some illuminating suggestions. 

Bringing wine to an established steakhouse like the Metropolitan Grill might feel especially cheeky, given that head sommelier Thomas Price recently became the fifth person in Washington (and one of 129 in all of North America) to pass the master sommelier exam. But Price says he’s not anticorkage at all. During the recession, the number of customers dipping into their cellars for a dinner at the Met zoomed up to 25 percent, he says, but now it’s about one in 10, and the wines they bring tend to
reflect our wine-producing area. “Of the corkages people bring in here, at least 50 percent are Leonetti something-or-other,” says Price, referring to the esteemed Walla Walla winery. And he’s not exaggerating that figure.

Here’s the irony: When Price himself—or many other sommeliers or wine-educated servers for that matter—goes out to dinner, he usually arrives with his own favored bottle of red wine. “But we always spend plenty of money on cocktails or a bottle of white.” 

A small neighborhood establishment like Tilikum Place Cafe on the northern edge of Belltown operates on even thinner margins than Met Grill, which is a part of Seattle’s Consolidated Restaurants consortium. But manager Lotta Hashizume welcomes diners who show up with “very special bottles from their personal collection.” They occasionally offer a taste, giving Hashizume a chance to sample vintages she rarely sees. 

The lack of obvious guidelines makes it all too easy to take advantage, though. At Restaurant Bea in Madrona, owner Kate Perry handpicked the wine list to be affordable. But after the restaurant opened in March so many people arrived bearing bottles she upped the corkage fee to $20. Still, most of her customers have a personal connection to the bottles they bring through her door. “I like that people feel it’s an extension of their home,” she says. “I honestly don’t think for most people it’s about saving money.” 

Whatever you do, avoid arriving with a bottle on the restaurant’s own wine list. That’s the cardinal sin.