Walt, I'm thinking through the wine cultures and how they affect, or would affect, my behaviour. The St. Louis model of $15 corkage/good wine lists is very different from the NYC model of almost no BYOB or the Northern New Jersey model of lots of BYOB and almost no corkage [as a practical matter]. As a traveller, I've encountered a number of other models as well, and my checklist of do's and don'ts, and I might modify my suggested checklist after I think through the differences. More anon.
But, to your second point:
"To me food and wine are one in the same and I cannot think of enjoying a good meal without good wine. Luckily most good restaurants in St Louis are $15 BYOs and some have well thought out wine lists. If you have neither, regardless of your food, I will not go."
We have very different attitudes. For me, dining out is basically entertainment; wine is one of several elements, but certainly not determinative of how entertaining the entire experience is and whether to return to a restaurant. Here are a few examples of my approach:
1. Eating at home. This is our preferred course of action -- at least 60%, probably 75%, of our dinners are at home. The CIA and FLDG folks have made me an excellent cook for what we like to eat, and we serve the wines we want, if any, with each meal. I think you and I agree 100% on this point.
2. Eating in connection with events; here the equation gets more complicated: food, wine, hours, distances, parking costs, companions, all come into play. Some examples.
a. Yankee games. The Club House has an outstanding buffet -- lots of superb food, easy to pick and choose, all you can eat, very good ambience, reasonable prices, close to parking, miserable wine list -- Sutter Home levels, 5 to 6 times retail, probably higher -- I can't bear to think about it. There are other places in the Bronx to eat before a game -- but this is so convenient we eat there six to ten times a year whenever we go to a game.
b. Theater. We go to events in NYC about twice a month. My main squeeze prefers [read "demands"] to munch in advance and dine afterwards, say between 10:30 and 11:00. Take three of our favorite choices:
Babbo -- great food, expensive prices, great wine, great ambience, free parking, an additional hour to get down town and then uptown on the way home. Wine costs about three times retail, although prices can vary. Closes at 11:00 and if "Heat" is to be believed you shouldn't arrive after 10:30. We have great luck getting tables here, but sometimes cancel if the show runs long.
Balthazar -- great food, fairly good prices, great ambience, free parking but for $10 to a fellow who watches the car, an additional hour and a half driving time, short but select and well matched wine list, three plus times retail. Closes after 1:00 p.m.
Fiorellos -- great food, great variety, reasonable prices, very good ambience, $25 additional parking, on the way home so no additional commuting tme, miserable wine list, four times retail, perhaps more. Closes after 1:00.
If it's Janet and me, we go about the same number of times to each of these restaurants depending on the time the show ends, how tired we are, what food we are thinking of. Wine really doesn't come into the equation unless I'm making the decision. And, if we go with our friends, it's almost always Fiorellos -- he's a Francophobe and eats only about six things -- pizza being one of them. (The rest of us can order a wide range of Italian dishes.)
Papermill -- this is a sometimes excellent off-Broadway house in New Jersey with an attached restaurant -- good albeit limited menu, reasonable prices, very convenient, limited wine list, priced three plus times retail. There really isn't an option, except to go home and eat.
It's worth noting that one can't BYOB in any of the four New York venues; and it's possible but not very easy at the Papermill.
c. Dining as entertainment. We like trying new restaurants, and although Janet allows me to choose "wine friendly" restaurants, we go back to the restaurants with great food, ambience and service without regard to the wine list and pricing. A favorite in New Jersey: Scalini Fidelli -- great food, miserable wine list, three plus retail pricing, PITA to negotiate corkage -- primarily because it's often the number one New Jersey restaurant according to Zagat's and other reviewers.
In restaurants like these, I tend to depend heavily on the sommelier if I'm picking the wine. I give the sommelier a price point and describe the sort of wine my companions like -- since I'm willing to try anything, this is never a personal problem. Good sommeliers know the wines in their cellars and how they are currently drinking, and more importantly how the wines and foods will probably pair up.
I know that I'm "over paying" for the wine in all of these cases by many people's standards. But my goal is to have a great time and to do the best I can to ensure that my companions and guests have a great time. Worrying about the price of the wine is counter productive to those objectives.
After all, I can always make up for over spending at Firellos by making a great pizza the next day, and pair it with a Bordeaux with some age on it.