One of the things I noticed about coming to DC is just how easy it is to buy alcohol. The supermarkets sell wine and beer, the local Whole Foods has a wine bar, and there are dozens of liquor stores everywhere. To the seasoned DC veteran, this may not be news, but coming from Pennsylvania, it’s quite the shock. Here there’s almost no planning involved when I want to pick up a bottle of wine or a six pack of beer, whereas in PA I was had the state owned liquor store hours memorized for the four or so stores that were located downtown. I do appreciate the convenience of free enterprise liquor stores, but it also makes me miss my local BYOs.
To understand why alcohol is so hard to come by in Philadelphia, one has to understand that the state as some of the most restrictive alcohol legislation in the country. As a control state, Pennsylvania only allows the sale of wine and hard alcohol, with no beer sales, in state-owned stores. Because the state owns the stores, it’s able to set the price of alcohol uniformly across the state, and decide what brands stores carry (most carry the same selection although some stores carry greater quantities of high end product). Stores are open usually from 9 until 7, except in some locations that are open until as late as 9:30. Just up until recently, all stores were closed on Sunday, but now stores are generally open from 12-5. Beer, on the other hand, is sold only at bars, restaurants, licensed stores, and distributors. The former three can sell small quantities, such as 6- and 12- packs, but for larger quantities such as cases and kegs, one must visit a distributor. Because a distributor only sells larger quantities, one cannot buy anything smaller than a case (great for parties, not so great for individual consumption). Hours and locations vary, but generally distributors keep the same hours as state stores. Individual outlets, such as licensed stores, are usually open later. Many local residents skirt around the laws by buying alcohol from nearby New Jersey or Delaware, although they risk getting caught by state troopers crossing back into Pennsylvania (but to be fair, that law is seldom enforced).
If the laws sound complicated and horrible, it’s because they are. I would pretty much have to plan in advance any trip I wanted to make to the liquor store, even to buy just one bottle of wine for my apartment. But worse for the consumer is the business that wishes to obtain a license. Doing so is fairly complicated and expensive, and many businesses, particularly restaurants, choose not to invest the time nor money into obtaining a pricey permit. The laws are so arcane and ridiculous, state politicians are actually doing something about it, hoping to reform the laws to make it fairer and easier for consumers and local businesses.
Still, if one good thing comes out of all this, it’s that Philadelphia is home to hundreds of BYOB restaurants, which range from hole in the walls to fine dining. While technically they are passing the cost of alcohol onto the consumer, it’s actually a terrific option for diners; allowing them to bring in the wine of their choice without paying the restaurant markup. Some restaurants even encourage diners to bring hard liquor as they provide the mixers. Thanks to this, Philly’s restaurant scene is known now just as much for its BYOB culture as it is for its amazing food. Of my three favorite meals in Philadelphia of all time, one of them was BYOB, and it was sensational.
In DC, it’s sort of a fair compromise. I can walk out of my apartment and within mere blocks there are multiple liquor stores that sell all the wine, beer, and hard alcohol that I could ever want to drink. It’s a terrific convenience, and I don’t have to make plans in advance to buy booze. However, the city’s looser liquor laws make it easier for restaurants to operate with a license, making my beloved BYO incredibly hard to find. It’s a small price to pay for being able to buy beer and wine in supermarkets and drugstores. On the flipside, it’s why the bottomless brunch is so popular here as compared to Philly, but that’s a post for another time.