Sometimes you get a tip that seems too good to be true. That’s what happened last week when VinePair’s cofounder, Josh Malin, came in to work one day with something he’d heard at the gym the night before. He’d been chatting with a trainer, and when he mentioned what he did for a living, her eyes lit up.
“I love wine,” she said. And then her eyes lit up even more. “Do you know about the deal at Hillstone? Hillstone doesn’t charge a corkage fee,” the trainer told him.
Hillstone, also known as Houston’s, is a restaurant chain beloved by many, including food greats like David Chang and Danny Meyer. Rhapsodized in Bon Appetit magazine, Hillstone has developed a following among New York City elites, notwithstanding being a chain with 47 restaurants in cities across the U.S., including the Hamptons. And this is because Hillstone provides a fine dining experience that even Meyer himself is in awe of.
For all these reasons, the possibility that Hillstone wouldn’t charge a corkage fee – essentially making it a BYOB — is crazy. Not having a corkage fee at a nice restaurant is not just rare, it’s unheard of. Most places charge anywhere from $30 to $50, though restaurants like the famed Per Se are known to charge as much as $150 a bottle. There are other restaurants where you can get a wine locker, like Morton’s, but you’re purchasing the wine from the restaurant, not bringing it in yourself.
It makes sense that restaurants, whose tight margins rely heavily on wine sales, wouldn’t want you bringing your own bottle. Who would give up the profits of one of the highest-margin items at a restaurant?
Josh looked at the trainer skeptically. But she insisted. “I bring all of my favorite bottles to dinner there,” she told him. “I go all the time.”
We decided to investigate.
If you live in New York City, your experience at BYOB restaurants is probably limited to ethnic joints. New York boasts Thai, Korean, Indian, Azerbaijani, Uzbeki, and Tajiki BYOBs, but not many French or American or Italian BYOBs, and certainly no fine dining BYOBs. Possibly this has to do with the fact that people order in a lot of ethnic food, while you’re not really ordering in from Union Square Café. These places invest less in décor and ambiance, presumably making enough money off delivery to keep them in business without having to pay for an exorbitant liquor license – hence the ethnic BYOB culture of New York.
But though you can order plenty of ethnic dishes at Hillstone, it’s absolutely a fine dining experience, and the Hillstone on the corner of 27th street and Park Avenue, is absolutely a fine dining establishment. A few days after Josh told me the trainer’s tip, we decided to grab a bottle of wine from the office and head over to Hillstone for lunch. We figured the worst that could happen was that they would tell us there was a corkage fee and we could either pay it or order something off their menu and forget the wine we brought.
When we entered the restaurant, bottle in hand, we checked in with the host and were shown to a table right in the middle of the restaurant. Like all Hillstones, the New York Hillstone is a big restaurant. But it also manages to feel incredibly intimate, even when you’re sitting in the center of the action. Guests have their choice of booths or tables draped with white tablecloths and lit by candles. The lighting is dim, which helps convey the intimate feeling – a stark contrast to many chains that seem to think bright lights make guests feel more comfortable because you can clearly see the place is clean and that they aren’t trying to hide something.
The intimacy is also probably the reason lots of celebrities have been known to make Hillstone their regular dining spot — the intimacy allows for them to feel comfortable, even when the place is packed. In fact, the day we chose to have lunch at the Park Avenue location, John Wall was seated at the table directly next to us and no one seemed to notice or care.
We sat down, placed our bottle in the center of the table, and waited. Our server appeared in minutes with a huge smile on her face, exuding the kind of pleasantness that can be rare at a New York restaurant during the lunch rush.
Immediately upon her arrival she noticed the wine bottle in the center of the table. “Ah,” she said, “you brought your own wine. Wonderful!”
Her excitement over us bringing our own wine instead of ordering something off the list that would increase her tip was unexpected. She actually made us feel great about bringing our own bottle into the restaurant. I was taken aback. Finally, I asked if there was a corkage fee.
“Absolutely not, we waive the fee for the first bottle,” she said, and began to uncork the bottle.
We couldn’t believe it. The tip checked out!
After finishing our first glass, I asked how often guests bring their own wine. Our server’s guess was at this particular location the occurrence was about 25 to 30 percent of the time, especially at dinner.
Later, a member of Hillstone’s hospitality team confirmed that yes, all Hillstones waive the corkage fee on the first bottle, and some don’t charge a fee on subsequent ones, either, though in higher-rent markets like New York, other locations charge $20 to $25 for subsequent bottles. The only caveat here is that a guest can’t bring in a bottle of something that is already on Hillstone’s own wine list (which makes perfect sense).
So, basically, Hillstone is a BYOB. Let that sink in. While this decision might not make sense to most people from an economic standpoint, it makes complete sense for Hillstone. According to their hospitality representative, Hillstone firmly believes in good customer service, and in their diners having the most enjoyable meal possible. If that enjoyment involves drinking their own bottle of wine, Hillstone is more than happy to facilitate that experience.
In some ways, it’s crazy. But from another point of view, it makes perfect sense. America invented the idea that the customer is always right, after all. The stereotype of the snobby French restaurant includes a waiter humbling you for your wine choices, determining what you will drink with a selective, expensive, often impenetrable list. “You’ll drink what we want you to drink, and you’ll like it!” is a good summary of the ethos. At Hillstone, though, it’s the exact opposite of that. At Hillstone, you’ll drink what you want to drink – and they’ll like it. And there’s nothing more American than that.