Table Talk: Policies still in flux as corkage law takes effect

<a href="http://findlocal.baltimoresun.com/listings/the-row-house-grille-baltimore">Rowhouse Grille</a>, which offers the New Zealand venison rack, is one of the first restaurants in the area to create its policy for the new corkage law.
Rowhouse Grille, which offers the New Zealand venison rack, is one of the first restaurants in the area to create its policy for the new corkage law. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun)

Maryland diners have been taking their own wine into BYOB restaurants for years, but those include only establishments without beer and wine licenses. Beginning Sunday, Maryland diners will be able to take their bottles into some licensed establishments. A new law permitting the practice, widely known as corkage, goes into effect Sunday.

Expect confusion, at least at first.

A restaurant can choose whether to allow corkage. It can also determine the fee it charges diners for the privilege, which is also known as the corkage fee.

But don't expect every restaurant to have corkage up and running on Sunday night. A restaurant first has to acquire its corkage permit, which is free.

Some restaurants are taking some time to craft a house policy that appeals to diners but doesn't leave it vulnerable to a free-for-all.

Waterfront Kitchen has its policy set. The restaurant will allow each party of diners either two wine bottles or one magnum. The corkage fee is $35 for the first bottle and $50 for the second, or $50 for one magnum. The fees will be waived, though, if diners also order wine from the restaurant's wine list.

Corkage is not for every restaurant. A restaurant with a deep wine cellar and a carefully curated wine list won't always allow it. And the newness of the policy might keep others from joining in at first. For instance, the new law does not permit a customer to bring in a wine that's for sale on the license-holder's wine list, but it's not entirely clear what happens when a bottle is similar.

Neither is corkage for every customer. A corkage fee can be anywhere from $20 to $40, or more, which all but rules out bringing in a bargain bottle.

But for some Maryland restaurants, corkage is one way to attract and retain the kind of deep-pocket diner who would want to wash down an expensive dinner with a prized bottle from his or her own collection. Some of those customers, they worried, had been taking their special-occasion business across state lines.

Volt, Bryan Voltaggio's flagship Frederick restaurant, was one of the restaurants that pushed for the new policy.

"Bryan and I were both early advocates of allowing corkage in Maryland," said Hilda Staples, the restaurant's co-owner. "Because we have so many guests joining us to celebrate special occasions at Volt, it's natural that they would want to bring a special bottle with them. Now they can come to Maryland instead of driving to our neighboring restaurants in D.C. and Virginia to enjoy their celebratory dinner.

And for a newer restaurant like Waterfront Kitchen, the policy can be a game changer.

"Most restaurants don't have the space or money to cellar a large wine collection," said Jerry Pellegrino, the restaurant's general manager. "So for people who collect and want to enjoy their wines properly served and paired with food, the new law is great."

Corkage may now be legal, but fine-dining restaurants have always found a way to take care of important customers. The difference now is that restaurants that do play by the new rules may be keeping a sharper eye out for the ones that don't.

Expect a few sour grapes as restaurants and diners adjust to the new policy. Even in cities with long-standing corkage laws, determining an individual restaurant's house policy is a matter of picking up the phone and asking.

New in Canton Mel Carter and Brett Lockard, the team behind Blue Hill Tavern in Canton, have opened a new restaurant named Shiso Tavern nearby in the old Cosmopolitan space on O'Donnell Square. They have installed Brendan Tharp as executive chef and Daniel Binghak as executive sushi chef.

Described as "a modern Asian-inspired bistro," Shiso is offering a menu of sushi rolls, rice- and noodle-based wok dishes, and entrees like sesame seed-crusted yellowtail and Hong Kong short ribs.

Shiso Tavern is at 2933 O'Donnell St. For information, go to shisotavern.com

Along Loch Raven The old Sanders' Corner is just about back in business. Now known as McFaul's IronHorse Tavern at Sanders' Corner, the Cromwell Bridge property is scheduled to open officially on Friday. The porch, overlooking the woods and fields surrounding Loch Raven Reservoir, has been restored.

McFaul's IronHorse Tavern at Sanders' Corner is at 2260 Cromwell Bridge Road. For more information, call 410-828-1625 or go to mcfaulsironhorse.com.