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Yes or No: Should Somerville Allow BYO Restaurants?

The city, which is seeking more liquor licenses, doesn't officially allow BYOB, but should it?

A number of people have asked Somerville Patch, offline, if BYO is allowed in Somerville.

It's easy to understand their curiosity. According to a Travel + Leisure article published in March, BYO restaurants are on the rise throughout the country. For those not familier, BYO restaurants—BYO stands for "bring your own"—allow patrons to bring their own bottles of wine or beer to drink with their meal.

In fact, one of the best BYO restaurants in America, according to Travel + Leisure, is Cafe Rossetti's, less than 10 miles away in Winthrop.

BYO restaurants can be found in some of the hippest neighborhoods throughout the country. Travel + Leisure lists Bonsoirée, a modern French spot at the edge of Chicago's Logan Square that has a Michelin star, along with Kaz An Nou, in Brooklyn's Prospect Heights, serving French-Caribbean food, and Five Islands Lobster, on Sheepscot Bay in Maine (not so hip, perhaps, but cool for other reasons), which is a picturesque New England fish shack.

Somerville: a dining destination with limited liquor licenses

Meanwhile, Somerville is actively seeking ways, as Mayor Joseph Curtatone said in his this week, to enhance the city's "growing reputation as a dining and entertainment destination."

As part of that effort, the Board of Aldermen in October  that, if passed through the state legislature, would allow the city to issue more liquor licenses to restaurants. The aldermen feel more licenses are needed to boost the city's burgeoning dining scene.

Restaurants are a $120 million business in Somerville, Michael Meehan, then spokesperson for the city, said at the time. Currently, the state limits the city to 84 liquor licenses and 16 beer and wine licenses. Of those, 10 have been set aside for new restaurants in Assembly Square. This state-imposed cap means new and expanding restaurants have to scramble for a liquor license when one becomes available, which isn't often. Some restauranteurs get "the short end of the stick," Meehan explained. 

Status of home rule petition

At the moment, the home rule petition is working its way through the state legislature. State Sen. Patricia Jehlen and state Rep. Denise Provost filed the bill on Dec. 15, according to Provost's office. On Dec. 19 it was referred to the committee on consumer protection and professional licensure, and there will be a hearing on the measure sometime before March 21, Provost's office explained.

The bill has unanimous support from Somerville's Beacon Hill delegation.

BYO not officially allowed in Somerville

It's in this context—of a city, filled with a hip and creative population, actively trying to promote a growing dining scene—that people have asked, to paraphrase, "Hey, what's the deal with BYO in Somerville?" The underlying sentiment seems to be that Somerville, with its art studios, diverse population and laid-back vibe, is a BYO kind of place.

Well, the deal is BYO is not allowed by the city of Somerville.

While Massachusetts state law prohibits BYO at establishments that have liquor licenses, it doesn't prohibit the practice at restaurants that don't have licenses. 

However, each city and town makes its own rules on the matter, and according to the rules and regulations of Somerville's licensing commission, "Patrons are not permitted to bring alcoholic beverages on the premises [of a restaurant] for their own consumption."

Which doesn't mean BYO never happens in Somerville. Gobyo.com, a website dedicated to the matter, lists 13 BYO restaurants in Somerville. It lists 83 in downtown Boston, where the practice is also prohibited. Perhaps this is because Bostonians have experience sneaking around blue laws and their kin.

What do you think?

Thoughts? Would Somerville benefit from encouraging a BYO culture, or is it something the city can do without? Let us know.

Warren Dew January 06, 2012 at 02:32 PM
It strikes me that if the issue is a shortage of liquor licenses, the solution is to continue pushing on getting more liquor licenses authorized, and not some workaround like BYOB. Why are liquor licenses limited by the state, anyway? They should be a local issue.
Tom Walsh January 06, 2012 at 04:10 PM
Proposal: Change the licensing from "license to serve alcohol" to "license for on-site alcohol consumption". There would be no cap on the number of these licenses. Any restaurant can get one, so long as they demonstrate that they're not going to cause problems for neighbors, etc. The city can still revoke these licenses for misbehaving businesses. There would be no "resale market" for these -- it would be like a driver's license or a marriage license. If you qualify, you get one. Doesn't matter how many other people have them. Individual restaurants can then decide for themselves if they want to serve booze themselves and/or allow patrons to bring their own.
Linda January 08, 2012 at 09:27 PM
Years ago we used to patronize a restaurant near Davis (the owner died a long time ago so I can talk about it without getting her in trouble) where we brought our own saki. The wait staff would take it and heat it up and serve it for us in lovely saki servers. It made the meal so much more affordable for us (even with the added tips to the servers and sharing with the sushi chef). I think BYO is delightful and I wish there were a special license for it that would be less limited than full liquor licenses. The liquor store businesses should like it!
cp kostos February 27, 2012 at 11:06 PM
With a population of more than 80,000, it seems that there is a disproportionate amount of licenses available. I think, untill this gets resolved, BYO should be allowed as long as the resturanteurs can be responsible and descretionary.
Donal Waide September 14, 2012 at 01:44 PM
A few months ago I was at a restaurant in San Francisco which has a BYO on Tuesday nights only. Result? A normally quiet night filled to capacity and everyone had a good time. We were there from 8:30-11 (table of six) and I didn't see an empty seat in the whole place.
Mary Norcross September 15, 2012 at 01:41 PM
I support BYO restaurants and am surprised to learn that they are not allowed in Somerville as I have been to establishments that have allowed BYO bottles. With BYO one can spend more on the meal and less on the scanty pours the establishments give out.
Chris McGovern February 12, 2013 at 08:26 PM
Years ago my wife and I would go to Lexington to a little italian restaurant on the main drag where you could byob. It was fantastic mainly because we were young parents and just getting out was a treat never mind having a affordable dinner with a bottle of wine. Somerville should do this, it is really a cool thing.

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