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Bern's Steak House
Bern's Steak House

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For Retro Decadence, Bern’s Steak House in Tampa Still Delivers

The restaurant has become a destination — and a conversation starter

So much has made Bern’s Steak House a destination and conversation-starter in its almost sixty years in business, but for first-timers the surprise always begins with the building itself. Once a small mall, it’s a multi-leveled, disproportionate construct plastered with white stucco and all but windowless. Without the restaurant's sign out front it could be mistaken for a distribution center or a sound stage. In the foyer, gilded padding wraps around stairway rails and an antique bust sits near an ornate chair that could double, in a pinch, as a throne. Painted portraits hang on a craggy white brick, doused in eerie light from wrought-iron fixtures across the room that reflect the glow of scarlet wallpaper. It looks like a mash-up of sets from True Blood and Penny Dreadful with bonus inspiration from Amsterdam’s Red Light district. Reading up on this place after my meal, I understood why its chroniclers have favored words like "rococo" and "bordello."

Bern’s real beauty — meticulously cooked steaks, debonair service, and, best of all, the deepest restaurant wine cellar in the U.S. — reveals itself soon after you’re ushered to a table in slightly more demure surroundings. And by dessert time, after sighing over macadamia ice cream made from a recipe perfected decades ago, it’s clear that customers keep filling these baroque rooms nightly for reasons beyond nostalgia or habit.

It’s clear that customers keep filling these baroque rooms nightly for reasons beyond nostalgia or habit.

Every steakhouse stems from the same template. There will be slabs of beef cut from the short loin and tenderloin, potatoes in myriad guises, and outlandish desserts for which no one saves room. Eating at a chophouse is America’s most universal ritual for indulgence. We go to broker deals or to celebrate and live large, even if we wince at the credit card receipt the next morning. Yet the steakhouse’s basic blueprint provides plenty of freedom for individual expression. Yesteryear’s carnivorous dens like Keens and Peter Luger in New York or London Chop House in Detroit cleave to tradition, their clubby machismo inseparable from their menus. Head-of-the-class reinventions such as Wolfgang Puck’s Cut in Los Angeles and Las Vegas or David Burke’s Primehouse in Chicago infuse the genre with celebrity-chef personality; virtuoso seafood starters and slick rooms reframe the steak dinner in modern contexts. The steakhouse’s mutability, coupled with our everlasting blood lust for charred beef, means the genre will never fade. As long as America stands, so will steakhouses.

Ribeye steak at Bern's. Photo courtesy of Bern's

Bern’s exists in its own west Florida dimension, an icon of eccentricity and excellence. Bern and Gert Laxer moved from Manhattan to Tampa in the early 1950s, wading into the restaurant business by first running a luncheonette until they bought a place called the Beer Haven in a retail complex in 1956. They started their steakhouse with Bern overseeing the kitchen and Gert running the floor. One by one, the Laxers bought the other businesses around them as they grew their restaurant to a 350-seat behemoth.

Bern was a shrewd tinkerer who nurtured obsessions and found ways to incorporate his fixations into the steakhouse — particularly when it came to wine. He purchased so many cases that he eventually bought warehouse space in the neighborhood for storage. At its zenith, the wine list was 2,000 pages long.

An auto accident forced Bern to retire in 1993 (he died in 2002); Bern and Gert’s son, David, took over the business. David, proving his own entrepreneurial know-how, expanded on the brand by opening a second and more casual restaurant, Sidebern’s, in 1996. It was recently remodeled and renamed Haven, focusing on small plates and a extensive cheese program. And in 2013 he opened the Epicurean hotel — with a cooking classroom and an eclectic American restaurant called Elevage — right across the street from Bern’s.

The wine program remains a thrilling pilgrimage for oenophiles.

As for the flagship: Aside from respectful updates here and there to the decor (in one room, mahogany paneling replaced fading red carpet that draped the walls for years), David Laxer has preserved his father’s legacy in fastidious detail. The wine program alone remains a thrilling pilgrimage for oenophiles. I don’t know of a more profound selection in America. The tome has been pared down to around 200 manageable pages, with lists of marquee producers from around the world, many offering vertical vintages that go back fifty years or more. For most of us, it’s too much to take in. The sommeliers, fortunately, are champs: They’ll zero in on your interests and budget and yield something majestic. I love white Burgundy and was prepared for a splurge (a modest one; there are five-figure reds in Bern’s cellar). The somm brought us a 1983 Mersault for $125 that tasted at first of lemon and butter and then something richer, almost like melted cheese on toast. Happiness.

Also, there are 150 wines by the glass, including a flute of Dom Perignon for $52 and — offered, if I’m not mistaken, without irony — a $3.50 pour of Sutter Home White Zinfandel. I watched people order bottles of fruit bomb California blends and glasses of sake or skip alcohol altogether. The staff, who train for months before manning the floor, stayed doting and engaged no matter who was drinking what.

Grilled shrimp over creamed corn, Caesar salad, and the interior at Bern's. Photos: Bill Addison

Beyond the posh, psychedelic setting and the rhapsodic wine, Bern’s is a very good steakhouse. Shellfish stands out among the starters, with familiar pleasures like a Maine lobster cocktail, formed into a tower and surrounded by strange moats of mashed avocado that taste better than they look, and grilled shrimp over creamed corn and beurre blanc. There are 20 caviar variations (whitefish roe for $25 per ounce all the way up to $190 Osetra) and a charming, throwback Caesar salad prepared tableside. Seven cuts of steak dry-age in-house and ordering each involves a thorough discussion: How thick would you like your steak? To what degree of doneness, and how heavy on the charred crust? (A chart lays out all the options and corresponding cooking times.) Another relic from restaurant culture of yore: French onion soup (not worth filling up on), a basic salad, a baked potato, onion rings, and a daily changing selection of vegetables all come with the entree. But plenty of upgrade side dishes — creamed spinach with leeks, potatoes fried or mashed, truffle-laced creamed corn — tempt with their more refined preparations.

Bern’s was a whole-evening experience. At the center of it all, the steaks delivered.

All the ordering may sound tedious, but an elegant, ceremonious rhythm governs the dining rooms. At the center of it all, the steaks delivered. A Delmonico (aka ribeye) afforded the classic marbled pleasure, but I slightly preferred the porterhouse, which includes both filet and New York strip sections. The aging sharpened the meat’s individual qualities; the filet was taut rather than flabby and the strip, while not quite reaching blue-cheese funkiness, expressed fathoms of mineral tang.

Dessert brought the themes of the evening full circle. We paid our bill (which includes a 12 percent service charge; that can slip by after several glasses of Burgundy) and then joined other guests for a tour of the kitchen and, more memorably, the tight, packed wine cellar, where we glimpsed bottles of Port and Madeira from the 1800s. Then it was up a flight of stairs for the finale: sweets in the Harry Waugh Dessert Room, named for Bern Laxer’s friend who was previously the director of Chateau Latour. The whole floor comprises 48 booths made of redwood wine casks; each table has a retro sound system you can tune to a variety of musical styles, including, naturally, a live pianist taking requests by phones attached to the stereo.

After hours of eating and drinking, settling into a nook one among the room’s woozy lighting felt trippy and out of time, like a tiki-themed David Lynch movie filmed in an alternate universe. It was rich just to sit and listen and people-watch. As delightful as they were, I could barely muster bites of banana cream pie and macadamia ice cream. Somehow I managed my glass of 1977 D’Oliveiras Bual Madeira much more successfully.

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