Don't dismiss Bern's Steak House at 1208 South Howard Avenue in Tampa, Florida, as just another beef eatery; this one-of-a-kind restaurant stands as a monument to American Simple--the steak and baked potato. Bern's prepares both so exquisitely that it has been suggested that the place be declared a national resource.
And besides dishing up the perfect steak, Bern's serves as the depository for the world's definitive collection du vin: No fewer than 6000 entries grace owner Bern Laxer's mammoth wine list, a true reference work for any oenologist, which is printed by Bern on his basement printing press.
Immediately upon meeting Bern, a spry man of 55, you know you are in the company of one of the world's most talented eccentrics. Instead of camping out idly behind a desk or hobnobbing with the dozen statues at the front door of his restaurant, Bern, usually dressed in Bermuda shorts, haunts the kitchen, broiling steaks over chemical-free lump charcoal.
Laxer is a man driven by obsessions: He demands that would-be waiters first serve an apprenticeship on his all-organic farm near Tampa Stadium; he grinds and blends up to 12 different types of coffee beans for each cup of coffee (and that only after the diner has ordered coffee); and he watches like an old mother hen over three warehouses nearly bursting with the wines he cannot keep in his cavernous cellar in the restaurant.
Bern and his crew of 170--that's one staff member for every two seats--slave over the mundane to create a work of culinary art from what many restaurants treat as an afterthought. To wit: Bern tosses five varieties of greens, plus peeled celery flavored with anise, a peeled tomato and olives marinated in herbs and olive oil into the house salad. Then he layers a blanket of cress sprouts grown from London-imported seeds and mixes it with a dressing he has concocted in his lavish test kitchen, where such masterpieces are born. It's just a simple house salad, and a microcosm of Bern's vegetarian dinner salad.
And the steaks: 85 variations, aged anywhere from five to eight weeks, allowing the meat to become tender and a bit sweet. About one sampled steak, Robert Gourdin, the national director of Les Amis du Vin, asserted: "It was one of the best--if not the best--I've had. Anywhere."
Bern's desserts range from Bern-melted-and-blended American chocolate to Bern-brewed cappuccino, reportedly a favorite of restaurant critic Leonce Picot, author of Great Restaurants of the United Stales. Our party happily sampled several desserts and found them all a shade more than decadent. The King Midas, a fresh carrot cake (Bern-grown carrots, of course) topped with Bern-mixed macadamia-nut ice cream and a secret liqueur, disappeared first. The Baked Alaska, too, was a heart stopper.
Before, during and after dinner, it is impossible to keep from inspecting Bern's wine list. And upon careful browsing, you wish that you had a few extra hundreds in your wallet. A 1919 La Tache (calling it rare would be an understatement) goes for a song--and $730. A bottle of Château Lafite-Rothschild 1841 is $3100. Bern's list is available for sale, at the restaurant only, for $17.68 (one to a customer, please).
Because of the national and international interest being focused on Bern's, reservations are a must. Telex (!) 52-436 or 52-437, or telephone 813-251-2421. Bern's is open seven days a week for dinner from 5 P.M. to midnight. Most credit cards are accepted, and since Bern maintains several overseas bank accounts, many foreign currencies are, too.
Bern's steaks are big and wonderful, and the wine list is more so.