Living in London we are spoilt for choice when eating out; there's a plethora of great restaurants selling wonderful food that compares favourably with most cities in the world. However, being an oenophile I'm put off by the gargantuan mark-up that restaurants put on wine in the UK, typically around three times the retail price. There are exceptions of course, notably Spanish and particular Italian restaurants that sell wine from their own Countries at fair prices. This isn't the norm though and it won't help you if you want to drink a bottle of really posh stuff.
So what's the solution. BYO of course! Sorry for speaking in acronyms, we're talking about Bring Your Own. Lots of restaurants have a license but are happy for you to BYO for a corkage fee. Better still, there are plenty of good restaurants, typically Turkish and Persian, that don't have an on-license but are very happy for you to bring your own wine for no corkage fee at all. There is also the added bonus that the cuisine in these restaurants is perfectly suited to drinking fine wine. The meze starters go with a variety of whites and the simple but very tasty grilled meat main courses are ideally suited for a wide range of medium and full bodied reds.
I went to a Persian BYO place last night, Alounak, in Westbourne Grove. The food is excellent and they don't charge corkage. In fact my chum and I not only brought our own wine but also our glasses. A bit extreme you might think, but when you're drinking a top claret and the only glasses they have are tumblers (not even a Paris Goblet, which is no better anyway), it seems necessary to me. We go there fairly regularly and follow the same routine every time; it causes some amusement and I'm sure they think we're a bit mad, but we're not ostentatious about it and no-one seems to mind. We kicked of with a bottle of del Duque, 30 Year Old Muy Viejo Amontillado, a first class and ever reliable Sherry from Gonzalez Byass. Bone dry, crisp acidity, nutty, savoury, complex and long long long - it's a great wine. However, I wouldn't say it was the best match ever with our starters. It's ideal with a variety of tapas, but the mezes we had (two aubergine dips, a green unsmoked one and red smoked one, both excellent) would have probably been better served with a dry but aromatic white, perhaps a Alsace Riesling or maybe a Alabriño from Galicia in Spain. Anyway, it was excellent all the same.
After that we were onto the delicious grilled skewered lamb kebabs, one butterflied and marinaded fillet and one minced with garlic and spices, served with rice and grilled vegetables. Very good indeed and perfect with a bottle of high-end claret. We had a bottle of 1999 Chateau Beau-Séjour Bécot, which is a Premier Grand Cru Classé from St. Emilion. This classification is the top of the St. Emilion hierarchy, with the exception of two estates, Ausone and Cheval Blanc, who stand alone on the pinnacle. 1999 was a good year for claret sandwiched between two excellent ones, so you can get some relative bargains there. Also it means you can (and should) drink the wines younger, whereas you might want to wait 15 years or more for the same wine in a really good vintage. At 10 years old the wine was perfect, still very dark and rich but fully developed, complex and very long. A perfect companion to the grilled lamb.
Finally on the BYO front, there's a very exciting new venture in London for 2010, called the BYO Wine Club. It costs £75 a year to join and then members pay no or minimal corkage for certain sittings. So far (according to my investigation of their website) there are 33 participating restaurants, all in London. This includes some big names, like Tom Aikens (no corkage, participates for weekday lunches or dinner on Mondays and Tuesdays) and Arbutus (£15 corkage, all sittings). They aim to have over 100 participating restaurants by the end of the year. If you bring really good wine it's got to be worth a good £15, so I reckon if you were to make 5 trips a year it would be well worthwhile joining up.
So whether you join the BYO Wine Club and go to snazzy restaurants or go to your local ocakbasi (Turkish charcoal grill restaurant), BYO is definitely the way to go.