There is little doubt that Tokyo is a gourmand’s paradise; there are literally thousands of restaurants serving delicious food from all over the world in myriad combinations. While “bottle keep,” in which a customer buys a bottle of whiskey or sake and leaves it at the bar for their next visit, is practiced in some clubs and bars, what do you do if you’ve picked up a special bottle of wine and want to enjoy it in a restaurant? Fairly common in North America, Australia and New Zealand, bringing your own bottle is gaining popularity in Japan. Known as BYO for “bring your own,” or BYOB for “bring your own bottle,” the practice has become popular as more and more Tokyo restaurants are allowing customers to bring their own wine to enjoy with their meals.
The practice of bringing your own wine to restaurants is thought to have begun in areas where restaurants were forbidden by law to sell alcohol and customers simply brought their own. Nowadays, restaurants offer the service so customers can bring a wine they want to drink and not be limited to the restaurant’s cellar.
Perhaps you’ve picked up a special bottle of wine from your home country or have purchased one on an overseas trip and want to enjoy it with friends over an excellent meal. Maybe you’ve received a bottle as a gift and would like to share it with the gift-giver at a nice restaurant. As the practice becomes more common, diners go out of their way to look for rare and unique wines not typically found on most restaurant’s wine lists to add something extra special to their occasion.
Bringing your own does come with a price in the form of a corkage fee. This fee is not intended to punish customers for bringing their own wine, but is intended as a convenience fee to the restaurant for opening and serving your wine and the use of their stemware. The corkage fee in Tokyo typically ranges from ￥1,500 to ￥5,000 and is usually charged per bottle. Some restaurants may limit the number of bottles you can bring, while some will have a scale allowing for more bottles for larger groups. You can generally get an idea of what to expect based on the restaurant’s food prices; the more expensive the restaurant, the higher the corkage fee. However, it is always good to check in advance what the restaurant’s policies and prices are in advance.
Fortunately, finding restaurants that offer BYO is easy, thanks to a website that lists information on BYO restaurants. The website is searchable by both genre of cuisine and location. As well as information on price range for both lunch and dinner service, it also provides information on corkage fees. The website address can be found in the sidebar of this article.
When you arrive at the restaurant, you should place the bottle on the table so your server is aware and able to prepare for you having brought your own bottle. Your server will typically inquire if you need an ice bucket or if the wine needs to be decanted to allow it to breathe. If there is something you need that is not covered by your server, feel free to ask for their help.
Be sure to inquire if the restaurant allows diners to bring their own wine and, because it varies between restaurants, check the corkage fee amount.
Be aware of temperature management; if you plan to drink a white or sparkling wine, it is best to either bring a cold pack or make arrangements to send the bottle to the restaurant in advance.
Be sure you know what is available on the menu so that you bring a wine that matches the food you are going to be eating.
If the restaurant has a sommelier, offer a taste of your wine, especially if you have an unusual or rare bottle. It shows a camaraderie between wine aficionados and also makes up for not choosing from their carefully selected wine list.
If possible, buy at least one bottle from the restaurant’s cellar and try not to bring a bottle that is on the restaurant’s wine list. Please note that it is considered very bad taste to bring a cheap bottle of wine to a restaurant.
Whether bringing your own bottle or not, it is always a good idea not to drink too much; its difficult to enjoy the dishes and diners may make a nuisance of themselves.
Restaurants offering BYO and corkage fees
Kobe Beef Kaiseki 511 ¥3000
Akasaka Rikyu Ginza ¥3000
Akasaka Rikyu ¥3000
BYO Restaurant Information
Story by: James Souilliere
From WINING & DINING in TOKYO #44