Which is the best value wine to drink in a restaurant?

Sarah Coles
Red wine is poured into a glass at an outdoor Zurich restaurant.
Red wine is poured into a glass at an outdoor Zurich restaurant.

Jay Raynor has been in the headlines, after an off the cuff remark suggesting people shouldn't feel embarrassed about drinking house wine when they go out for a meal. He told an audience at the Cheltenham Festival that rather than being intimidated by wine waiters, people should drink what they want. When asked whether it would be OK to drink the house wine in restaurants and save your expensive wine drinking for home, he agreed.

After the story broke, he took to Twitter to point out that this doesn't necessarily mean buying the cheapest wine at all times. He said: "I don't think you should always buy cheapest wine on a list. Was a knockabout answer to a specific Q."

It raises an interesting question about the best wines to drink when you're in a restaurant.


When you're picking a wine, it's worth being aware that the mark-up can be astronomical. Typically the margins on main courses are often tight, so restaurants make more of their profit from side orders, desserts and the wine list.

Bottles will usually cost two-and-a half or three times their supermarket value. It means, for example, that something that would set you back £7 in the supermarket could easily cost £21 in a restaurant. And for that kind of money you could pick up a posh Cloudy Bay Chardonnay in Sainsbury's. It's up to you to decide whether you want to drink a £21 bottle of wine in a restaurant or at home.

To make matters more confusing, often mark ups are not the same across the board on a wine list, so you cannot know how much better a wine is than the one above it just by looking at the price. Unless you are a wine expert, therefore, it can be difficult to know the best decision to make.

Sejal Sukhadwala, a food writer for titles including Time Out and The Good Food Guide from Which? said an insider once told her that the wine with the highest mark-up is usually the second-cheapest, because "nobody wants to order the cheapest wine, so customers usually go for the second-cheapest."

What can you do?

There is no right or wrong wine to pick, but the sensible approach is to make an informed decision. Rayner supports a trend for transparent mark ups. Restaurants like Corkage in Bath for example, allow you to buy the wine in the shop for an 'off sales' price, or sit down for some wine and food, and buy by the glass or buy a whole bottle and page a corkage fee.

If you are going somewhere with a more traditional approach, if you're comfortable getting your phone out at the table, you can always look the wines up online, and see what you are getting for your money. If you plan to do this, make sure you get to the restaurant first so you can get this out of the way before anyone else arrives.

If that would be too embarrassing, check before you go whether the wine list is online, and do your research at home. Many good restaurants will publish their wine list online, and if they don't you can always call and ask for it to be emailed to you.

But what do you think? Are you confident ordering wine in a restaurant? Let us know in the comments.