Frugal Drink Pairings for BYOB Restaurants

Photo: warrenski

BYOB restaurants are gaining more and more popularity. Restaurant owners love the concept because they don't have to purchase a liquor license or hire a bartender, and you love it because you don't have to pay $10 for a glass of wine. And bringing your own booze doesn't just cut down on the bill. It can also provide an opportunity to get creative with your food and drink pairings or prompt you to finally open that bottle of wine you've been saving for a special occasion. If you are dining with a group, you might even offer to bring a six pack of your favorite brew to make splitting the bill a little easier. (See also: Techniques for Splitting the Bill)

Even if choosing which BYOB cuisine you are in the mood for is a no-brainer, deciding what to pair it with can be a challenge, especially if your goal is to save money. There are plenty of frugal drink choices, from barley wine to sake, that can easily be paired with some of your favorite dishes. The types of BYOB restaurants do vary, but here are a few of the more common types of BYOB cuisine, listed with some inexpensive but delicious drinks to pair with your meal.

Thai and Vietnamese

One of the more common types of BYOB cuisine, Thai and Vietnamese dishes tend to be spicy, which means they pair well with certain white wines and lighter beers. If you aren't a huge fan of sweet or overly fruity wine or beer, you can always go for something dry or hoppy. Either way, here are a few recommendations in those categories.

Wines: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, or Pinot Gris

While a sweet Riesling will definitely help tame the spice, any kind of Riesling pairs well with many types of Thai flavors. I prefer a dry Riesling, and my favorite is Bloom Riesling from Germany, partly because of its dryness and flavor, but also because I can usually find it under $10. Gewurztraminers are typically served at Thanksgiving, since this wine — similar to a dry Riesling — goes well with turkey, but it is also a fine choice for spicy foods. You can usually find Mill Creek Gewurztraminer from California for under $15. Another favorite wine to pair with spicy or Asian dishes is a Pinot Gris, because of its rich fruit flavors and crispness. If you can find it, the Lange Estate Winery Pinot Gris from Oregon is a very good domestic wine for the price, usually starting at around $10. No matter which one you choose, it is best to chill these wines (or any white) before you head out to the restaurant.

Beers: Saison/Farmhouse Ale

A standard Belgian Saison (French for "Season"), or Farmhouse Ale, has rich citrus flavors with hints of autumnal spices. The Saison Dupont from Belgium comes in a 750ml bottle (typically around $10, and the same size as a wine bottle), so there's enough to go around. This Saison epitomizes the dry, yeasty flavors typical of many Farmhouse ales, and I find it an all-around beer that compliments spicy or mild cuisine. I highly recommend it with super spicy stir-fried dishes, because the malt and citrus enhance the peppery flavors in the food. Smuttynose also makes a decent and affordable Farmhouse. Before you pour, ask your server for something akin to a tulip glass or snifter, if they have one. According to the Beer Advocate, a Saison needs a glass that "Captures and enhances volatiles, while it induces and supports large foamy heads." While there are many theories about the temperature at which you should serve finely crafted beers, it is probably best to avoid serving such a well-rounded beer at ice cold temps.

Italian and Pizza

Italian restaurants and pizza joints are a little trickier, since they are not typically BYOB, and Italian menus have a variety of dishes that you can pair with just about any kind of wine. Still, you can find a few BYOB Italian and pizza places out there. While beer and pizza is a classic combo, it can also pair well with a nice red or white wine, depending on the sauce and toppings. This list contains some of my favorites, but don't limit yourself when pairing drinks with Italian fare.

Wines: Chianti, Barolo, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, or White Zinfandel

Before you get overwhelmed by that list, I will start by saying that Barolo and Chianti are classic Italian wines. They go with any dish that has a tomato base, including pizza. Barolos are a little more pricey and harder to find than a cheap Chianti. If you want to go super cheap, try Marchesi de Frescobaldi Nipozzano Chianti, which starts at $2 for some vintages! Merlot and Cab Sav both pair well with heavy meat dishes, but some wine enthusiasts think that the cheap bottles of drier reds are not worth the money saved. As someone who lives on a shoestring budget, I take that as a challenge. Red Truck Merlot is usually priced around $8 a bottle, and for a Merlot under $10, I find it to be a very decent wine. White Zinfandel and Chardonnay go well with lighter Italian fare or white pizza. Most California White Zins can be found under $15, and for a tasty Chardonnay under $15, try the Mercer Estates Chardonnay from Washington state.

Beers: Pilsner or Hefeweizen

Pilsners are not only a perfect match for pizza; they can also go well with most Italian dishes, particularly heavier ones since a traditional pilsner is a lighter beer. Even though many cheap pilsners have a bad reputation, I share Paul Michael's secret love for PBR. But if you want to get a little adventurous, try a Hefeweizen, which is a little fuller than a pilsner and has a citrus flavor that I think pairs well with pasta and pizza. Sierra Nevada Kellerweis is a fairly inexpensive Hefeweizen (usually around $8 for a six pack) that you can find in most stores. If you can't find Kellerweis, look for Harpoon's UFO Hefeweizen, which sells for around the same price.

Indian and African

Most of the Ethiopian, Moroccan, Egyptian, and Indian restaurants I've been to are BYOB, which is partly why I've grouped them together. But they also have similar flavors and spices. Indian and Ethiopian foods tend to be very spicy, so you can try some of the pairings mentioned under Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. Here are a few more suggestions.

Wines: Honey wine, Riesling, Malbec, or Cabernet Sauvignon

I lived in D.C. for a few years, and the District is known for some of the best Ethiopian restaurants outside of Ethiopia. Many of the places that served alcohol would offer the traditional beverage of Ethiopia, a honey wine called tej, but it's not often cheap or easy to find. Instead, you might try bringing a sweeter Riesling or a white blend. The French wine La Vieille Ferme Blanc is a white blend that goes with light or spicy fare. Priced at $7 and under, it's a great value. Cabernet Sauvignon may seem like an odd choice for spicy food, but I think the heaviness rounds out the flavors, and it goes well with many of the meats served in African or Indian restaurants, such as lamb and beef. Red Truck also makes a Cab Sav made with organic grapes, which is labeled as Green Truck and sells for under $15. I like to drink that one with Moroccan dishes.

Beers: India Pale Ale, Traditional Lager, Hefeweizen, or Barley wine

While I think any of these beers go well with African or Indian food, I prefer a traditional lager with spicy food. It's light, malty, and a little sweet to cut the spice. My favorite inexpensive lager is Yuengling. I know many beer snobs who agree that for the price, this is a decent lager. I also love many of the cheaper IPAs out there. Recently, I tried the Long Hammer IPA from Red Hook, and although it didn't get rave reviews at the Beer Advocate, I thought it was flavorful. The flavors were also enhanced with a spicy meal, and for the price, it's a good choice for a BYOB East African or Indian dishes.

Burgers and Pub Fare

To me, there is simply nothing better than a burger, fries, and a cold brew. Even if you aren't eating beef on a bun, most red meats are good with any kind of beer. Don't rule out wine, however. You can serve red or white with burgers. Most pub and bistro food, in fact, doesn't necessarily call for one or the other. I think with burgers and pub fare, it's really up to your preferences. Here are a few of my favorites.

Wines: Pinot Noir, Syrah blend, Merlot, or Pinot Gris

One of my newest discoveries is Bistro Pinot Noir from France, which you can find as cheap as $6 a bottle in some places! This is one of the best cheap wines I've had in a while. The tannins are not too overwhelming like many cheap reds, and it didn't leave that acidic aftertaste that I find with most $6-$8 bottles. Another decent red that can be found at around the same price is the La Vieille Ferme Red, also from France. I've only seen one red and one white from this vineyard, and the red is a blend of Syrah and other grapes that produces a very nice red blend for the price. I prefer reds overall, but if I were to choose a white, I'd go with a Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer, especially for the more gamey meats, such as lamb and venison burgers.

Beers: Wheat Ale, Pale Ale, Traditional Lager, or Farmhouse Ale

My favorite beer and pub food pairing is a nice Saison or Farmhouse Ale, and any of the ones I mentioned under Thai and Vietnamese food are excellent choices. If you prefer more traditional ales and lagers, then I would recommend the UFO White Ale from Harpoon Brewery in Boston. If you want a good pale ale, and you don't mind going up slightly in price, I highly recommend Stone Pale Ale. Anything from this brewery is an excellent choice. Again, it's really up to you, but there are so many wonderful and moderately priced beers out there, it's hard to choose a favorite. With pub fare, I'd say your best option is to experiment and try something you might not normally drink.

Greek and Mediterranean

Whether you prefer the vegetables and hummus or the lamb, Greek and Mediterranean food can be paired with a variety of wine or beer. Depending on your palette, you may find that an unexpected pairing can enhance your dining experience the most. As with pub food, be adventurous when you go to a BYOB Mediterranean or Greek restaurant. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

Wines: Malbec, Pinot Gris, or Chardonnay

Malbecs are becoming better known as a well-priced versatile wine. I prefer the Agua de Piedra Reserva Malbec (see 10 Great Wines Under 10 Dollars, #2 on the list). Any dish with cheese is a great match for this red, but especially a strong Feta. Another new frugal favorite is the Alamos Chardonnay, which is also from Argentina. I was surprised that at $6.99 a bottle (at my local co-op), this full-flavored wine went well with anything, but especially fish. You can't go wrong with the flavor and the price on this Chardonnay.

Beers: Summer Ale or White Ale

The Brooklyn Summer Ale is my top choice for Greek and Mediterranean food, but there are many summer and wheat ales out there that you can find for a good price. Blue Moon Belgian White is another popular one. I would recommend either one of these to share at the neighborhood BYOB Greek joint.

Sushi and Seafood

Raw or cooked, fish and seafood are prime candidates for white wines and lighter beers; however, if you are more of a dark beer or red wine drinker, there are plenty of those to choose from as well. Stout and oysters are an unlikely pair, for instance, but this is one combination I would recommend if you like to hit a BYOB oyster bar. Don't forget to pick up a bottle of sake when you head out to your favorite sushi restaurant, because you don't have to drink it warm to enjoy it with your rolls and sashimi.

Wine/Sake: Sake Momokawa, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay

I have to say that while I'm not a sake aficionado, I do trust the experts at Sake One. I've thoroughly enjoyed any sake I've tasted from this Oregon-based company, particularly the Momokawa. You don't have to bring sake just because you're eating at a BYOB sushi place, though. One of the cheapest yet drinkable wines that is readily available is the FishEye Winery Pinot Grigio. If you're like my friends who raise eyebrows when they see a bottle of it in my fridge, here's my response — I can get it at the gas station on the way home, and it's ideal for spicy seafood and a thin wallet.

Beers: Stout or White Ale

My favorite white ale is the Allagash White, and while it isn't as cheap as some of the other ales I've recommended, it's an excellent beer for the price. You won't find many beers of that quality under ten bucks for a six pack. It's light and crisp, and it goes extremely well with seafood. If it's a stout you're looking for, you can never go wrong with Guinness, but there are plenty of comparable and well-rounded stouts made here in the states that give this famous Irish stout a run for the money. Although I'm slightly biased, the Vermont-based Rock Art Stump Jumper Gnarly Stout is everything you'd want in a well-balanced stout to wash down those raw oysters (if you can find it).

Don't forget to ask about a corking fee. Some restaurants will charge a small fee to uncork your wine bottle, usually between two and five dollars. For more wine pairing tips, check out these wine-pairing suggestions.

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Meg Favreau's picture

When I lived in Philly, there were scores of BYOB restaurants. There aren't so many here in LA, and I definitely miss them -- being able to get an awesome meal with friends while enjoying reasonably priced booze was awesome. One of my favorite get-togethers consisted of getting mix-and-match six packs of beer and going to Tacconelli's, one of the best pizza places in the city. Oh man, I miss that pizza.

Ashley Watson's picture

Meg, it's definitely one of the perks of living on the East coast. There's a BYOB pizza place right down the street called,"Bite Me," and I can't decide which I like more: the pie or the name of the joint.