Harry Waugh Dessert Room at Bern’s Steakhouse, Tampa, Fla.
I’ve done a restaurant within another establishment before, but this is the first time I’ve done a restaurant within a restaurant. Bern’s Steakhouse might be the most famous steakhouse in the Tampa Bay area, and it’s one of the most famous in the United States, period. It’s been open since 1956, and since that time, it has built its reputation on doing things differently than everyone else.
The difference is evident from the moment you walk inside. At first glance, Bern’s’ white building appears just ordinary, with no reason whatsoever to expect anything more than a typical restaurant. The sign is nondescript, the parking lot small and there is simply nothing special about the exterior. Once you step inside, however, you see how different Bern’s really is. The restaurant looks more like an elegant ballroom than a place to eat, with exquisite décor and velvet walls. Clearly, this place is different.
When it comes to dessert, Bern’s might be more different than anyone else in the country, which leads to this review of a portion of a restaurant. At most restaurants, when you finish dinner, the waiter will ask if you are interested in dessert and then bring dessert to your table if you are. At Bern’s, when customers finish with their dinner, they are simply given the check for the meal. If they want dessert, rather than remaining at their table, they are instead escorted upstairs to the Harry Waugh Dessert Room, which consumes nearly the entire second floor of Bern’s and is dedicated entirely to dessert and the end of the meal.
As the story goes, Bern Laxer, the founder and original owner of Bern’s, was dining at Harry Waugh’s home in London in 1977 and came to the end of the meal. When dinner was finished, Waugh and his wife took Laxer into another quieter room with a lighter ambiance, which Waugh used for the end of a meal. Upon seeing this, Laxer decided that such an experience would be perfect for his guests at Bern’s, and the Harry Waugh Dessert Room was born.
The dessert room is totally separate from the rest of Bern’s, as it is on the second floor of the restaurant. It is not required for dessert patrons to have eaten dinner at Bern’s, and this is how Amy and I found ourselves heading to the second floor. Amy has lived in Tampa for her entire life, but she had never once been to Bern’s.
Hardly a shock, because Bern’s is one of the most expensive restaurants I’ve ever seen. Doing things differently also means costly, and dinner and dessert at Bern’s for two people can easily push $150 — before adding appetizers, gratuity or alcohol. On a related note, one of my new goals in life is to eventually be able to afford an entire meal at Bern’s. I think I can pull it off by the end of 2015.
Dessert only, however, is still expensive but more manageable. With Amy celebrating her birthday — the first one of hers that we had celebrated as a couple — I wanted to do something special for her, and decided that after dinner at Red Mesa, we would be making a visit to the Harry Waugh Dessert Room. So after getting our pass to the dessert room from the hostess, we were headed to the second floor.
After you hand your card to the dessert room’s hostess, it’s clear you are in a different place. Rather than tables spread all over the place, the Waugh Dessert Room separates customers into their own private booths depending on how many are in your party. The booths are similar to old-style telephone booths, with a little more room inside, and are cut off from the rest of the customers in the room, ensuring a private dining experience.
That is only the beginning. When the waiter/waitress arrives at your table, it will take him or her about five minutes before even getting to the menus. This is because the amenities of the booths must be explained. On the walls, you’ll find random dessert recipes. The booth has one dim light, granting just enough light to be able to see clearly while setting the mood. The best part is the sound in the dessert room, which you are in complete control of.
The booths all feature their own private sound system, allowing guests to choose exactly what kind of sound they want to hear. Classical, jazz, pop and contemporary selections via satellite radio are there to be selected. If you don’t care for any of those, Bern’s also features a piano player and a station tuned to his work if he’s playing that evening. Next to the controls for the sound system is a phone, which allows you to personally call the piano player and request a specific song.
Then there is the dessert menu, which is reminiscent of Taylor Swift’s “The Story of Us”, because it’s actually divided into chapters. The menu is about 20 pages, and it’s divided into coffees, desserts and sweet wines, spirits and cocktails. Every dessert on the menu is completely homemade, just like everything else at Bern’s, and only the finest ingredients are used per Bern’s high standards. This is a big reason why everything is so expensive, but it also makes it so incredibly worth it.
In addition to the main menu, there’s a small menu that features seasonal special desserts and exotic cheeses for you to sample. I’m not sure if the cheeses change with the seasons like the specials do, but on our visit, there were 16 different cheeses available to be selected, all for $6.00 per ounce. Again, pricey, but probably worth it if you’re a lover of cheese with a refined palate.
But it’s the desserts that make this place special, and that meant Amy and I had some serious decision-making ahead of us, with three solid pages of desserts in front of us. Dessert-wise, I pretty much have to try anything with peanut butter, while Amy loves any and all things chocolate. But on this trip, with two desserts in front of us, we opted to include neither one.
After discussing the menu with our Slovak waitress (seriously, she came to the United States from Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, which was incredibly cool to me as a guy of Slovak heritage), we discovered that the two specialties of the Waugh Dessert Room are the banana cheese pie and the macadamia nut ice cream. In a place this nice, however, neither of us wanted to just have ice cream, so we opted to share a slice of pie and a Baked Alaska, which included the macadamia nut ice cream on top of vanilla cake, covered in a marshmallow meringue and soaked with rum, then toasted.
The presentation is fantastic. Our server brought out both desserts, then lit the rum surrounding the Baked Alaska, starting the roasting process. Meanwhile, the banana cheese pie sits next to a pile of crumbled graham crackers and a mound of fresh homemade whipped cream. With the flame still burning on the Baked Alaska, Amy and I decided to start with the banana cheese pie.
Holy schnikes. This was unlike anything I have ever tasted. The banana cheese pie is the only dessert that has been on the menu since the first day Bern’s opened, and it’s easy to see why. Fresh bananas are sprinkled throughout a cream cheese and banana mousse, which sits on an almond praline crust. We knew instantly that the correct way to eat this was to dip it in the graham crackers first, then get some of the whipped cream to bring in every element of flavor.
The flavor is wonderful. The dessert is incredibly smooth, creamy and rich, with an amazing texture and taste. Amy decided that it might be her new favorite dessert, and I’d have to say that’s a great call. I know good cream cheese-based desserts, having won a state fair in Idaho with a cheesecake, but this cheese pie is far beyond anything I could come up with. Wow.
Having finished the pie, we were excited to dig into the Baked Alaska, and we weren’t disappointed. The marshmallow meringue is perfect toasted, similar to the days of roasting marshmallows over a fire. Meanwhile, the rum adds another layer of flavor to both the meringue and the cake, as it soaks into the cake while the alcohol is burning away.
It is outstanding. The ice cream stays ice-cold throughout despite the flames, providing a real contrast in both temperature and texture from the gooey burnt meringue. It’s smooth, light and delicious, an experience that you’ll remember for a long time.
That pretty much sums up the dessert room itself. Everything about this place oozes class and elegance, and it really does make you feel like you’ve reached a certain milestone in your life when you make the trip here and experience it for yourself.
That’s probably why it’s taken me 24 years to get to this point where I could enjoy the Waugh Dessert Room. A meal or a dessert this exquisite is something you have to earn, and it’s a sweet feeling when you do, especially when you can share it with the love of your life.
Time to go: Late evening. Bern’s is a dinner-only restaurant, and the dessert room follows that. It will be open during normal dinner hours, which begin at 5 p.m. each night.
Wait during my visit: None. You cannot make a reservation for the dessert room as you can for the main restaurant, but the dessert room commonly will have space. When you arrive, simply tell the host/hostess that you wish to visit the dessert room and you will be handed a pass for your party to dine there. If there is open space, you will be immediately seated upon your arrival there.
Location: The Harry Waugh Dessert Room is located inside Bern’s Steakhouse, at 1208 S. Howard Avenue in Tampa, Fla.
Parking: This is the first place I’ve been where valet parking is part of the experience. Bern’s offers no self-parking, instead requiring you to hand off your car to a valet, who will park it in a garage across the street. You pay $5 for the privilege.
Cost: Oh boy. Remember what I said about doing things differently here? They mean it, and this kind of quality does not come cheap. Imported ingredients, a totally homemade and creative menu, wait staff that has been trained a minimum of one year and precise everything to ensure your experience is perfect means that you are paying for both the food and the atmosphere.
That means you’re likely to pay about $10-15 per person if you order nothing but desserts, but relax, because it’s worth it. This is truly some of the best food in one of the best atmospheres ever. The slice of banana cheese pie is $10, and Amy and I both thought it was underpriced. It’s that incredible.
Seating arrangement: This is the only flaw with the dessert room. If you’re on the bigger side, it might be difficult to get yourself into some of the booths. Once you’re seated, you have plenty of room, but the shape of the booth does force you to squeeze past the table. Be observant as to how much room you have.
Website: Bern’s. The dessert room does not have its own website, but the menu can usually be found on Bern’s main site.
Specialty items: Banana cheese pie, macadamia nut ice cream, homemade everything.