Supreme steaks and world-class wines. That's what Bern's is best known for. But the granddaddy of fine-dining establishments, and its nearby counterpart SideBern's, also play leading roles in Tampa Bay's "cocktail culture."
The revered restaurants approach mixed drinks with the same reverence and expertise they do everything else on the menu. Because, really, why settle for a rum 'n' cola when you can sip a flawlessly calibrated concoction of, say, No. 209 Gin, goat cheese and lavender honey?
Part of Bern's Winefest No. 12 taking place this weekend in and around SideBern's is the Wine-fest Saturday Soiree. It features, among other things, "avant-garde cocktails" ($100 tickets were still available at press time; go to bernswinefest.com).
I spent last Friday evening prepping for the event with an initial stop at the Bern's bar around 8:30. It's a dimly lit, low-ceiling, bordello-feeling room off to the right of the main entrance. I found a seat at the crowded counter and asked for a specialty drink that wasn't too sweet. My affable, knowledgeable bartender, Harrison "Sonny" Fail, returned with one of my all-time faves, a mojito.
Served in a big, fat brandy snifter, it proved to be a euphoric rush of muddled mint leaves, sugar, lime, soda water and the key ingredient, I was told, 10 Cane Rum. The beverage went excellently with my steak sandwich and veggie medley, the $11 steal that does not appear anywhere on the menu.
"It's more a traditional steak house experience here," Fail said when I asked him about the difference between the Bern's and SideBern's bars. "It's a little older crowd here."
Just as he said that, though, a couple of college-age-looking women sat down beside me and ordered a Flirtini ($10). (That's Vox Raspberry Vodka, Chambord and pineapple juice, topped with a perfectly tart Champagne float.)
The sandwich — plus the 0.2-mile walk north on Howard Avenue — sobered me up a bit for what would turn into an awesomely long night at SideBern's. The room has a higher ceiling, better lighting and decidedly more contemporary ambience than its big brother down the street. The circular bar is the focal point of the dining room.
I started my sublime drinking session with a Lazenby, a biting, gin-based beverage doused with fresh grapefruit juice ($13).
General manager Dean Hurst helped me navigate through the exotic "martini" and "rocks" choices. The "Femminello" ($12) was the most accessible, with its mix of Ketel One Citron vodka, fresh lemon juice, Galliano and mint resembling a most spectacular Lemon Drop. More refined palates are advised to try the Sobroso ($13). It's a deliciously dry, salty, peppy combination of Plymouth Gin, sherry and blue cheese-stuffed, serrano-wrapped olive.
My favorite? Red Ginger Tea ($13), a fabulously foreign and refreshing blend of sorrel flower-infused No. 209 Gin, Domaine de Canton, fresh lime juice and agave nectar. The beverage balanced awesomely with my Poached & Chilled Scallop appetizer ($15).
After several hours of sampling some of the finest mixed drinks to ever meet my lips, I wondered if I could ever return to the land of rum 'n' colas? "Our goal is to encourage growth in Tampa's cocktail culture," Hurst said.
It will be nice to see more bars and restaurants follow the Bern's family's stellar example.
What's your preferred drinking destination? Contact Barfly columnist Wade Tatangelo at wtatangelo@ hotmail.com.