Bern’s Steak House did not build its reputation on curb appeal. Set in the Tampa suburbs, not far from the bay that gave this city its name, the restaurant is housed in a complex of interconnected bone-white buildings that suggests a sprawling middle school, designed by an architect with Spanish Colonial tendencies.
If the tile-roofed exterior is drab, then the interior overcompensates. Swagged in gilt and velour, the rabbit warren of bordello-worthy nooks and anterooms at the core of the restaurant bespeaks both the grand castles of Europe and the chicken ranches of Nevada. Somewhere beneath that tile roof lurk the remains of Beer Haven, the workingman’s tavern that founders Bern Laxer and his wife, Gert, bought in 1956 and refashioned into our nation’s rococo temple of red meat and red wine.
It’s difficult these days to picture those humble beginnings. Seven nights a week, bow-tied waiters, working under the direction of David Laxer, the son of the founders, weave among clutches of marble statuary, peddling tins of malossol caviar and suet-rippled porterhouses. Meanwhile, sommeliers coo softly in the ears of well-heeled regulars, extolling the supple Italian amarones that lurk in Bern’s 500,000-bottle collection.
But never mind that folderol. Instead of claiming a seat in one of the dining rooms, I prefer to indulge my carnal pleasures at the bar, where a fat glass of Cabernet and a fatter steak are always within easy reach. The men who work the Bern’s bar are old-school. Order a bourbon neat and you earn three fingers of the good stuff. Request a rib eye and you get a learned disquisition on the virtues of dry-aged beef. Ask for a reasonably priced glass of red and you win a perfect pour of Côtes du Rhône and a short history of France, told without pomposity.
Follow the lead of a tender and you’ll learn that the dry-aged and pleasantly ferrous-tasting hunk of cow-flesh perfection you ordered comes with a veal-stock-based French onion soup, a salad drenched in a lava flow of blue cheese dressing, vegetables harvested from Bern’s very own farm, and a fork-fluffed baked potato that begs for six pats of butter.
Speaking of money, Bern’s is not often heralded as a frugal eater’s haunt. It can be, however, if you settle for those complimentary accompaniments, instead of upgrading to Caesars and such. My last check totaled $70, including a couple of glasses of wine and a generous tip, which, as measured by both wallet and palate, makes Bern’s a gilt-bedecked bargain.
MUST EATS: Other steak standard-bearers
The Angus Barn, Raleigh, NC
Open since 1960, this truss-roofed restaurant serves shrimp cocktail without irony and chateaubriand cuts lavished with béarnaise. angusbarn.com
Bone’s Restaurant, Atlanta, GA
Atlanta was built on business deals. Bone’s is the clubby enclave where business elites swig martinis and fork bone-in filets. bonesrestaurant.com
Doe’s Eat Place, Greenville, MS
The original Doe’s, founded in 1941, is famous for gargantuan steaks, hand-rolled tamales, and BYOB drinks. doeseatplace.com