Bern’s Steak House, Tampa, Fla.
Long before this journey began, I knew that this was one of the places that I wanted to experience at some point in my life. Put simply, Bern’s is one of the most famous restaurants not just in the Tampa Bay area, but in the entire country. This is a steakhouse that set itself out to be the best at what it does, and that means that it’s one of the rare places that had its fame go far beyond its borders long before the days of the Travel Channel, Food Network and the Internet.
I’ve personally known about Bern’s since the 1990′s, and I’ve been waiting for the day that I’d finally visit ever since then. A year ago, as a special surprise for her birthday, Amy and I got a taste of Bern’s by visiting the dessert room, which is an experience on its own. But as great as the dessert room was, it’s only a part of the true Bern’s experience. To get the real experience, one has to go through every part of a Bern’s visit, which means dinner and the dessert room in one visit. It was something that I thought would happen eventually, but as I said last time, I didn’t think I’d be able to afford it for another two years.
But with a little bit of careful budgeting and planning, Amy and I were able to make it work on our most recent trip to Tampa. After fighting our way through a massive rainstorm that stretched across the entire East Coast and shut down airports in colder cities, we handed the keys to the valet in front of Bern’s (a required part of the Bern’s experience, as there is no other parking available there) and headed into the deceptively small restaurant to begin our evening.
Just as it was when we came to the dessert room, it was clear that we had stepped into elegance. This is a place that segments its dining areas throughout the restaurant and has only one window in the entire building, which is not even in a place that’s visible to customers. Unlike the dessert room, which is first come, first served, a reservation is pretty much required when you come for dinner. If you don’t have one, you’ll be lucky to get a table at all, and even if you do have one, you might still have to wait. After all, when you’re going to a restaurant for an experience, you’re not going to be rushing yourself, and Bern’s isn’t about to ask people to rush. In fact, they encourage you to fully bask in every part of the evening.
Unfortunately, depending on your luck, that can have a slight drawback. If you do visit Bern’s, learn from our mistake and ask if there’s any way that you can avoid being seated in the same room as a large group, because Bern’s segmented areas means that it is NOT a good spot for large groups, because the noise bounces around a much smaller area. We were unfortunate enough to be seated near a group of 12 people, and as soon as they left, the room’s ambiance became much more intimate and romantic. I do wish that Bern’s would assign couples to one area of the restaurant and louder groups to another, because that would make for a much better atmosphere for all parties involved. But that said, our experience was still enjoyable, even with that drawback.
What makes a trip to Bern’s special is the quality of the service and the quality of the food. Ever since the days of Bern Laxer, the founder of the restaurant, Bern’s has billed itself as a true culinary experience, a tradition that has continued under his son David. Even the wine is something unique, as Bern’s boasts one of the largest wine cellars in the world and has bottles of wine available from all over the country, some of which are more expensive than your average journalist’s salary.
Yes, Bern’s offers bottles of wine for sale that cost over $30,000, all of which are either stored on-site in the wine cellar or stored in a private area near the restaurant. Because it takes its wine so seriously, Bern’s asks that if wine is your thing, you place your order at the beginning of your meal before anything else, which will allow them to properly prepare it for your maximum enjoyment. If you want, you’re allowed to take a tour of the wine cellar after your meal is over, which is a pretty cool experience. Each bottle is stored at the perfect temperature, and the massive collection of bottles is just awe-inspiring. The wine cellar tour is the second half of a tour that includes a tour of the Bern’s kitchen, allowing you to see just how much work goes into every bit of your meal. They say they do things differently here, and they really do mean it.
The menu is more like a book than a traditional menu (and the wine list really is a book, coming in at around 300 pages), all of which go into detail explaining the process for each of their offerings. The appetizers are broken down by what the main ingredient, including beef, poultry, vegetarian, seafood, foie gras and caviar. We weren’t about to break the bank for an ounce of caviar (although Bern’s does fly it in fresh), so we decided to start our meal with something unique that would appeal to both of our palates: a lobster cocktail.
Basically, it’s a shrimp cocktail times about 100 in terms of awesomeness. The lobster cocktail includes fresh Maine lobster tossed with citrus mayonnaise, and gets served with whipped avocado, mango and other greens, along with thinly cut gaufrette potatoes, which basically means potatoes that have been woven into a thin waffle-type shape and fried.
The lobster is quite simply incredible. The meat is amazing, and the avocado and mango flavors complement it beautifully. The potatoes are simply an added touch to show that yeah, they can go for the fantastic in terms of presentation, because that’s what they do. The taste of the potatoes with the avocado and lobster is simply unmatched. Honestly, the lobster cocktail is so good that Bern’s deserves recognition based on that alone.
But this is only the beginning of the Bern’s story. From there, Bern’s shifts to its standard offerings of soup and salad, which are pretty high-brow. All entrees come with both a house salad and French onion soup, which can be troublesome if those aren’t your thing, because substitutions are not allowed. That’s really a shame, because Bern’s has two other soups available, its vichyssoise and lobster bisque, both of which appear to be worth experiencing. In fact, Bern’s even has an option for trying all three of the soups. But unfortunately, anyone who takes any of those options will pay for the soup a la carte, which means adding roughly $12 to your bill for a bowl of soup.
Costly, but sometimes it’s worth it, because Amy is not a big onion fan and wanted to go with the lobster bisque. Truthfully, the bisque is pretty good, using golden mushrooms, corn and bacon, but it’s missing the large chunks of lobster that were present in Carmel’s version. This was honestly a tad disappointing, even though it’s still a very tasty soup. By blending the lobster meat into the soup so thoroughly, the soup is filled with lobster taste, but the lack of the meat is a slight drawback.
By contrast, I thoroughly enjoyed my French onion. The soup was hot and flavorful from first bite to last, and the cheese melted on top of it was perfection. When you make as many of these as Bern’s does, you’re bound to get really, really good at it, and I suppose that’s why every entree gets the French onion. They know it’s something they do incredibly well. Throw in some pretty awesome bread, and you really can’t go wrong here.
The salad is again amazing. Bern’s offers 10 house-made dressings available, and as many of its vegetables as possible are grown organically on the restaurant’s farm. Bern’s pays so much attention to detail on the salad that they actually peel the tomato before adding it to your salad. Having never had a peeled tomato before, I was amazed at just how good it can be without the skin.
The buttermilk ranch was also incredibly creamy and worked well with everything on the salad. I loved every bite of it, and was thoroughly impressed at just how much work goes into making a salad of that quality. From the hard boiled eggs to the green peppers to the marinated olives, everything was fresh and fantastic. You can’t ask for anything more.
After all that, it was time to get to the main reason that one comes to Bern’s: the steaks. Bern’s offers several different cuts of meat, all aged to their specifications, and does not cut any of its steaks until after a customer has placed their order. The reason is because they want the steak to be of the highest quality, and one size fits all does not really work for steaks. Instead, thin steaks are better when served medium well or higher, while thicker steaks are better when cooked less than medium well. As we’ve discussed before, they don’t miss a thing in this place. That means juicy steaks are served here, and they’re totally worth the high cost.
I decided to go with the 10-ounce Delmonico, wanting flavor marbled throughout my steak. If a place like Bern’s calls it the best beef eating in the world, that’s good enough for me. Flavor was certainly what I got. The steak was cooked to perfection, and they’re not kidding when they say that no sauce is needed because of the flavor and juice. Every bite was ridiculously flavorful, and even the bits of fat on the steak are worth eating. Bern’s isn’t concerned about looks on the steaks, because they know that this is their specialty. Unlike the lobster cocktail, where they’re trying to impress you with presentation, this time, they’re all about the taste.
It’s an approach I really appreciated, because when it all comes down to it, the most important part of a culinary experience is whether the food tastes good, not whether it looks good. If it tastes great and looks so-so, that’s much better than the reverse. The steak was wonderful, and I would love the chance to try the other steaks that Bern’s offers. Whatever your steak preferences are, chances are you’ll be satisfied, but I can definitely vouch for the Delmonico.
The sides were just as awesome. Bern’s offers a fully loaded baked potato, crisply fried onion rings and two vegetables of the evening with all of its steaks. The vegetables of the evening can be anything that Bern’s has on its farm, and are served with all entrees. As with the cocktail presentation, this is a great example of Bern’s showing off. They’re so proud of their farm that they’ll give seconds or even thirds of the vegetables of the evening at no extra charge, if a customer asks. On our visit, we were served carrots and some kind of leafy green vegetable, which I believe was spinach. Whatever it was, it was incredible.
But the real stars of the sides are the baked potato and the onion strings. The baked potato is huge and has the flavor of condiments throughout it, while the onion strings are a perfect complement to the steak. Honestly, I was tempted to ask for more of the onion strings, and I’m not even the biggest fan of onion rings. But these things were that good.
Unfortunately, they’re also part of a very misleading part of Bern’s menu. Bern’s menu says that all entrees come with the baked potato and onion strings, but that isn’t the truth. The non-steaks occasionally have their own sides that come with the meal, and if that’s the case, the baked potato and onion strings are superseded and replaced by the sides that come with that menu item. We didn’t end up finding this out until Amy’s order arrived sans potato, and I felt horrible for her as a result, even though she of course said it was fine. She’s so incredibly sweet.
Not being a beef eater, Amy opted for the Chicken Bern, which is marinated, spiced, sauteed and served with rice pilaf and crispy shiitake mushrooms. As with the lobster bisque, it was good, but not great. The soy sauce that it’s served with didn’t really work as well as it should have, which was a bit of a disappointment. As my uncle Phil, who used to live in Tampa, told me before we went, it’s best to stick with the steaks, as that’s what Bern’s has built its reputation on through its history. I felt really bad for Amy, but the good news was that it was time to head to the dessert room.
Just as it was the first time, the dessert room was magical. This time, we decided to start by trying one of their specialty cheeses, which can be bought at $6 for an ounce. Incredibly costly, but something we decided was worth the experience to sample something unique. That ended up being the triple goat brie, which was incredibly creamy and great with strawberries. The cheese definitely isn’t something to get all the time, but it’s worth trying at least once on a dessert room visit, where the ambiance allows you to really enjoy something that exquisite.
For the desserts, of course, our choice was to go with the pie. Truthfully, it was a difficult decision, because everything on the menu looked amazing, but the main thing that we knew was that the banana cheese pie had to make a return appearance. I’ve tried to make my own, and even though it was good, it just doesn’t compare to what Bern’s produces. This pie is heaven on a graham cracker crust, and we would have been crazy not to try it. I’m all for new experiences most times, but really, that wasn’t going to be necessary this time for one of our choices.
For the other, however, we could afford to look around. We didn’t look far, though, because we both wanted to try something chocolate. Of course, that meant going with the chocolate cheese pie, which is much like the banana cheese pie in the fact that it’s also an incredibly delicious mousse. The chocolate is so rich and the whipped cream so fresh that this one ranks right up there with the banana cheese pie in terms of awesomeness. I honestly wasn’t sure which one of these two should rank higher. With the chocolate shavings, the chocolate pie scores even more points, but the fresh bananas at the bottom of the pie are totally unmatched. For a really awesome taste, you can also mix both and get a chocolate-covered banana pie. Every bite is incredibly awesome, and we might not ever get around to trying any of the other desserts. These are that good.
By the time it was over, we had spent more than three hours inside Bern’s, engrossed in the full experience. That’s a testament to just how incredible this place really is. The food is amazing, but it’s not just about the food here. From the decor to the kitchens to the wine cellar to the burgundy ties that show a waiter is still learning the job, it truly is an experience to see just how much can go into one meal from long before you arrive until the moment you finally leave. At most places, dinner is just a meal, no matter how good it is. At Bern’s, it’s truly an event, and it’s something that has to be experienced in person to really be believed.
Time to go: Dinner, and make a reservation. Bern’s is only open from 5 to 10 p.m. most nights, and it can get ridiculously packed. Call ahead and save yourself the trouble. When you do get your table, you can also book your tour of the kitchen and wine cellar, plus your seat in the dessert room, if you’re so inclined.
Wait during my visit: Minimal, because of our reservation. If you don’t have one, there’s a good chance you don’t get in at all.
Location: Bern’s can be found at 1208 South Howard Avenue in the southern part of Tampa, Fla.
Cost: Oh boy. Doing things differently does not come cheap. Even without wine, you can easily top triple digits at this place, which we did. One thing to keep in mind here is that tipping works a little differently here in the main dining room. Regardless of party size, Bern’s will automatically add a 12 percent tip to your bill, and anything on top of that is up to you, so if you normally leave 15 percent, you’ll only need to add 3 percent to your bill to reach what you want to leave. In the dessert room, however, that rule does not apply, and you should tip as you normally do in other restaurants. We budgeted $160 for this meal, and that was where it ended up.
Parking: Valet only, and you will pay $5 for the privilege.
Seating arrangement: Tables in the main dining rooms, booths in the dessert room.
Specialty items: Steaks, lobster cocktail, cheese pie