While my family and I stayed in beautiful St. Petersburg on our most recent trip to Florida’s Gulf Coast, we did make the 30 minute drive into Tampa a few times.
Prior to our trip I began to hear many excellent stories about Bern’s Steak House (www.bernsteakhouse.com) in Tampa. This is the spot known for perfectly aged steaks, one of the largest wine collections in the world and an internationally famous dessert room. These elements have combined since 1956 to provide guests with a unique culinary experience. I must say I cannot recall a dining experience quite like this. The prime steaks are cut to order, vegetables are grown locally on the Bern’s farm and sourced from the finest purveyors, and the menu includes 21 choices of caviar. Bern’s Jewish founder, Bern Laxer, was born to a Romanian mother and Polish father on the Lower East Side of New York in 1923, and grew up in the Bronx. After serving in World War II, he returned to New York where he pursued a degree in advertising from New York University. He met his wife Gert in a copywriting class and they married in 1950. To support them, Bern operated a one-man advertising agency in the city.
In 1951, the couple planned to move to California, but they first wanted to visit Bern’s aunt in Tampa. After watching her 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 lunch time. After several months, the Laxers added cold breakfast and opened earlier in order 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 in order to prepare for the week ahead. The Laxers served dishes prepared with only 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 South Howard Avenue. 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 the 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 guest seats.
Sadly, Bern passed away in 2002. Gert, now retired, visits occasionally while their son, David, carries on the tradition of running Bern’s Steak House, Bern’s Fine Wines and Spirits, and its sister restaurant, SideBern’s. His son David Laxer runs the operation.
Bern’s waiters train for approximately one year, working at every station in the restaurant. Our server Curt reviewed the extensive menu and made some recommendations. We started off with a delicious order of 12 oysters on the half shell for the two of us and some lump crab cakes with avocado green tomato salad and Bern’s blend mustard butter sauce for the third member of our party. The former was accompanied by classic cocktail sauce, horseradish sorbet, green Tobasco granite and truffled mignonette. From there, it was pretty straight forward. The three of us shared a 22 ounce cut of Chateaubriand, perfectly cooked at medium. It cut like butter. All entrées include French onion soup au gratin with garlic and spelt toasts, steak house salad, baked potato, steak house crispy fried onion rings and a vegetable tasting of the evening.
The menu, which you can download from their website, is most comprehensive in describing the food and how it is prepared.
After dinner, we went on the restaurant’s famous kitchen and wine cellar tour. Then it was time to step inside the world famous Harry Waugh Dessert Room, 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. This represents a separate sitting. All desserts – ice creams, sherbets, pies, pastries, hot fudge, whipped cream, breads and crackers – are made by Bern’s with the freshest and best ingredients available. Wow, it was difficult to choose. In the end we opted for two specialty drinks, a dreamsicle (vanilla ice cream, orange juice, orange schnapps and Hangar One mandarin) and a Butterscotch Bern’s (vanilla ice cream with butterscotch liqueur and other special liqueurs) as well as the chocolate-chocolate-chocolate, classic (layers of chocolate cheese pie, chocolate cheese cake and milk chocolate mousse on a dense chocolate crust and served with whipped cream and milk chocolate shavings) and the capacino creme (their signature version of the classic American dessert Tiramisu). What a truly amazing dining experience. If you are in the area of 1208 S. Howard Street then make a reservation by calling 813-251-2421. You can valet park for $5.
Bern’s is fully wheelchair accessible. There are elevators which bring you to each level of the restaurant.
The Straz Center
While in town we purchased tickets to the hit musical An American in Paris, which was playing at the beautiful Straz Center in Tampa Bay. Built on an abandoned gravel lot in a city that was lacking cultural offerings, the Straz Center (http://www.strazcenter.org) began as the dream of a community. Today it is the largest performing arts center in the Southeast and the only one with an on-site performing arts conservatory. The Straz Center was incorporated in 1980 and opened in 1987.
In the early 1990s, the Straz Center (then known as Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center) established arts education as a community priority, working closely with area public, private and home school programs to enhance arts education for children throughout the seven-county Tampa Bay area. Outreach programs included curriculum connectors to Florida education standards and teacher study guides in print and online. The Straz Center’s extended in-school artistic residencies, summer programs and after school offerings helped to fill the increasing gaps in arts education left by budget cuts. Since 1991 the Straz Center’s Education department housed programs such as Tampa Bay Youth Orchestra and Community Arts Ensemble, a free summer theater day camp that served urban children in need by connecting them with nationally known artists in a rehearsal-based process. Each summer, an original musical play was written and produced especially for that year’s group of up to 100 children to perform in a fully-staged production for friends and family in one of the Straz Center’s main halls.
The Straz Center is committed to making the performing arts available and accessible through a variety of services, including sign language interpretation, audio descriptions of shows and open captioning. It encourage patrons needing these services to call ahead (813.229.STAR). The Straz Center has an ‘Open Doors’ Accessibility Policy. Wheelchair accessible seating may be purchased online or over the phone with a Customer Service Representative.
A Quick Pre-Show Meal
If you want to grab a fun meal before the show, then I recommend the IHOP 10 minutes away at 802 S Dale Mabry Hwy. International House of Pancakes® began making people smile in 1958 when it opened its doors in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Fifteen years later, a new marketing campaign introduced the acronym “IHOP,” and since then it’s been the name people know as the place they can enjoy their favorite breakfast experience—any time of day. For 58 years, IHOP has been a leader, innovator and expert in all things breakfast, any time of day. The chain offers 65 different signature, fresh, made-to-order breakfast options, a wide selection of popular lunch and dinner items as well as meals under 600 calories. IHOP restaurants offer guests an affordable, everyday dining experience with warm and friendly service. As of June 30, 2016, there were 1,695 IHOP restaurants in 50 states and the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam as well as Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, The Philippines, and Panama. IHOP restaurants are franchised and operated by Glendale, Calif.-based DineEquity, Inc. (NYSE: DIN) and its affiliates. Why not consider buying a gift card online at http://www.ihop.com/Restaurant-Gift-Cards. You can send it digitally to anyone you wish.
There was also an IHOP just down the street from our hotel in St. Pete. Open 24 hours a day and 365 days a year, I only wish I had this kind of option for breakfast foods and a whole lot more in Montreal. They also provide wireless internet at a good speed.