The question: My wife and I were dining with friends at a restaurant in Toronto that allows BYOB. Our friends ended up bringing a bottle from their cellar, which we drank with dinner. What's the etiquette? Were we supposed to pick up more than our share of the check?
The answer: If the wine was Romanée-Conti, yes. If not, a gracious thank you would have sufficed.
BYOB stands for bring-your-own-booze, and restaurants in certain jurisdictions are permitted to allow patrons to walk in with a sealed bottle of wine. The systems vary based on geography. In Toronto, restaurants that already sell alcohol can opt to let customers bring their own. In Quebec, BYOB is generally permitted only in restaurants that do not sell alcohol but are licensed to serve it.
I'm assuming from your question that your friends surprised you with a special bottle and that there was no prior arrangement regarding whom, if anyone, was to bring wine. That's the key here. On the face of it, I'd interpret the gesture as a gift to be shared, so there's no debt, per se, on your part.
But one generous act deserves another. It's good to make some sort of gesture – short of whipping out calculators and prorating the bill based on the estimated current auction value of the cellared bottle.
My first inclination, given that you were at a licensed establishment in Toronto, would be to offer to buy the table a round of aperitifs from the restaurant, assuming it's a thirsty group and there's no tipsy-driving risk. That's considerate toward the restaurant as well, since there are costs associated with BYOB service. The restaurant loses its fat alcohol markup – booze, not food, is where many high-end restaurants make their money.
An alternative gesture is to offer to tip for the whole table, letting the restaurant simply divide the meal cost down the middle between two credit cards.
There's yet another appropriate move. Most restaurants in jurisdictions such as Toronto charge a so-called corkage fee – often between $10 and $25 but in some cases as high as $40 – to cover costs associated with BYOB service. You could simply offer to cover the corkage fee, a nice, tidy solution.
In the end it all depends on how well you know your friends and whether you suspect they were counting on being reimbursed. In my book, no one should come bearing a surprise bottle and expect to gain something apart from heartfelt thanks.
Have a wine question?