Rare and well done: Bern’s Steak House is a Tampa legend

By Brooke Palmer Kuhl | Photos by Amy Pezzicara, Pezz Photo

The New York Yankees. Tom Brady. The Tampa Cuban. Ybor City. Stuff that Tampa legends are made of. And then, there is Bern’s Steak House. After 66 years, Bern’s still serves hundreds of guests, night after night, sharing important milestones or just a great evening out.

There are many things that make Bern’s, and its concepts, special. It’s a challenge to describe all of the magic in a thousand words. It is strongly suggested that you experience it for yourself.  (NOTE: Reservations book on a rolling basis 90 days out and fill up quickly!)

The story of Bern’s Steak House begins in 1923, when Bern Laxer was born on the lower east side of Manhattan. After serving in World War II, Bern returned to New York City where he met his wife, Gert, in a copywriting class at New York University, while earning his degree in advertising. Bern and Gert married in 1950 and Bern supported them with his one-man advertising agency.

In 1951, Bern and Gert planned to move to California, but they first wanted to visit Bern’s aunt in Tampa. After watching his aunt labor tirelessly in the Chinese restaurant she owned for nearly 40 years, Bern vowed never to enter the restaurant business. During their time in Tampa, Bern and Gert ran out of money so they simply decided to call Tampa home. Bern found work in advertising with several companies, while also freelance writing a garden newsletter called Garden Notes, in his spare time.

Bern and Gert initially attempted to open a soft-serve ice cream parlor, in downtown Tampa, but couldn’t secure the necessary financing. In 1953, they bought a small luncheonette called The Gator Juice Bar which served orange juice, coffee and cold sandwiches at lunchtime. After several months, the Laxers added cold breakfast and opened earlier to accommodate more diners.

Bern and Gert spent five days a week working at the luncheonette while Saturdays were reserved for shopping, cleaning, scrubbing and making repairs to prepare for the week ahead. The Laxers served dishes prepared using the freshest, and best, ingredients in their small restaurant. On Sundays, Gert rested while Bern continued to produce his four-page garden newsletter. Before long, the luncheonette added hot breakfasts and lunches, fresh eggs and homemade doughnuts under the new name Bern and Gert’s Little Midway.

Acknowledging their success, the Laxers purchased the Beer Haven bar in, what was then, a small strip shopping center and moved their operation to 1208 S. Howard Ave. After a “historical” meeting with 10-20 investors, Bern and Gert began their new endeavor in what is now the Bordeaux Room of Bern’s Steak House. Bern and Gert always planned to be equal partners and, therefore, share equal billing in the name of their new bar. However, in order to save money, they salvaged letters from the existing Beer Haven sign and bought an “S” to create “Bern’s.” They eventually added “Steak House” because the phone company wouldn’t allow single name listings.

Not long after opening the bar, the Laxers learned that the man who sold them Beer Haven had done so without permission from the landlord. With the landlord threatening not to renew their lease, due to his disapproval of alcohol sales, Bern and Gert agreed to go back into the food business and became a restaurant, once again. The Laxers labored seven days a week, Bern as the cook and dishwasher and Gert as waitress, hostess and second dishwasher, as they served breakfast, lunch and dinner with beer and coffee in between. As time marched on, Bern and Gert gradually bought adjoining shops and grew Bern’s from one to eight dining rooms and from 40 to 350 seats. Finally, the famous Harry Waugh Dessert Room was built in 1985, using redwood wine casks to create 48 private rooms where guests, to this day, enjoy nearly 50 desserts, wines, ports, sherries and madeiras.

Bern was in a serious car accident in 1993, turning the business over to his son David, retiring in 1996. David now carries on the tradition of running Bern’s Steak House today. David founded SideBern’s (now Haven) and Bern’s Fine Wines and Spirits. Haven was named as an ode to the Laxer’s first acquisition on Howard Avenue—the Beer Haven.

Over the last decade, Laxer formed a partnership with Mainsail Development, with the Epicurean Hotel, as well as expanded the Epicurean Hotel footprint to a location in Midtown Atlanta, in fall of 2021. Additionally, Bern’s Steak House was awarded the James Beard Foundation medal for outstanding wine program in 2016, after being a two-time finalist and a semifinalist for Best Restaurant. Haven’s executive chef, Chad Johnson, is a two-time semi-finalist for Best Chef: South. Bern’s is also one of only four restaurants in the country to be awarded the Grand Award from Wine Spectator, since its inception.

Along with the restaurants, David and his wife, Christina, also founded Bern’s Winefest that, through the Laxer Family Foundation (established in 2018), fund a culinary scholarship for students in Florida, in Bern’s name, via the James Beard Foundation. In addition, the foundation supports Veteran’s initiatives, Youth in sports and pediatric cancer causes. Winefest, now in its 25th year, has become one of the top wine festivals in the country and hopes to continue its giving success this year with the Silver Jubilee.

What’s next for this Tampa mainstay? More growth, but Bern’s will stick to what it has done for 66 years. Its tagline? “We do things differently here.”  And it does.

Bern’s Steak House is a one-of-a-kind experience.

Brooke Palmer Kuhl is the public relations director for Bern’s Steak House and its related companies. She is also the director of Bern’s Winefest.

A First-Timers Night at Bern’s

By Jo-Lynn Brown

I’m a woman that appreciates a good steak and wine, so the fact that I had never visited Bern’s Steak House before is problematic, on a few levels, including the fact that I’m born and raised here and have no good excuse.

My friend, Brooke Palmer Kuhl, found this to be unfathomable and as we planned this story through, she insisted I come out to experience “the magic” firsthand. I know, my job is the worst.

I arrived about one hour before doors opened so she could give me the grand tour and cars were already pulling into the valet line. While reservations are insanely hard to get, and book up months in advance, the bar seating area is first-come, first-serve. This means, you need to show up early and hope for the best.

Within minutes of opening, the bar is full. If you’re running even a little late, my recommendation is to have a plan B for a place to enjoy your evening.

If you’ve never been to Bern’s, like me, you might envision a stuffy atmosphere with hushed chatter, it is not. It’s people talking, laughing and fully enjoying the evening. And it is an evening. This isn’t a place to eat dinner quickly before you go to something else. It is the experience of the night, not the precursor.

The food is, top-notch, incredible. Anything you order will please you. Truly. But the food isn’t the whole story. Each member of the staff goes to great lengths to make sure you are well-taken care of, from going over the menu to making recommendations on wine pairings.

When you are finished with your meal go upstairs to the Dessert Room, where you can hear your favorite songs on the piano while you enjoy a nightcap.

When you get home, you will be full and happy.

***

Brooke’s Bern’s picks:

The 8-ounce, filet with bearnaise, and the macadamia nut dressing for the salad, with a jammy California cabernet or a great bourbon.

Jo-Lynn’s Bern’s picks:

The 8-ounce filet with bearnaise. The French onion soup. And please try the macadamia nut ice cream sundae. I’m still thinking about it. For a drink? Try the old-fashioned. 

No Comments

Post A Comment