TAMPA — My question: Has Bern's Steak House stayed the same while we've all grown up? In reading back through 50 years of restaurant reviews, I realized I was asking the wrong question.
"It is fashionable in some circles to be bored with, tired of or too sophisticated for Bern's. What rubbish." — Chris Sherman, St. Petersburg Times, April 26, 1990.
"At JFK's inauguration, Jackie wore a simple cloth coat lined with sable. If Bern's were that coat, it would be lined in bright red dyed rabbit, with the roots showing. What a floozy." — Carol Kirschenbaum, St. Petersburg Times, March 10, 1988.
In 2008, they're both still right, and I'm not being wishy-washy. Enjoying what Bern's has to offer is a matter of context. Your own experience and your knowledge of the restaurant's history are key. If you're a sophisticated diner, you have doubtless had better French onion soups. But knowing the strange little pewter bowls in which the soup is served were the vision of Bern Laxer himself, crafted in the restaurant's own metal shop, it tastes that much better.
A steak house connoisseur may smirk at the page-long steak chart: "I don't need to know the eye color and hobbies of the beef in question, just bring me a nice steak." Still, it's these excesses and eccentricities that caused noted food writer Jeffrey Steingarten to gush in his book It Must Have Been Something I Ate, "It's a national treasure, not a Tampa treasure."
Jeannie Pierola's much publicized departure in November, and former sous chefs Andy Minney and Habteab Hamde's promotions to chefs de cuisine, have meant surprisingly few changes in the kitchen. Still, it seemed time to find out just how Bern's was faring.
(The changes are more evident at SideBern's, where Pierola's departure and Chad Johnson's move to executive chef and Courtney Orwig's promotion to chef de cuisine have meant a turn away from Asian touches — no more dim sum — and toward a more Mediterranean palate, with a new, affordable lounge menu in the bar.)
I carefully chose my dining companions on two recent visits — the first time, broadly traveled foodies from Chicago; the second, a friend and her elderly aunt, the latter someone who doesn't dine out "fancy" too often. The results were predictable: The Chicago group found Bern's tired, retro and campy, its food and service relics from a former era. The aunt, on the other hand, clapped her hands like a kid when presented with her chocolate cake in the Harry Waugh Dessert Room, the rich wedge capped with a spun-sugar cage ensnaring fresh raspberries. She loved the kitchen tour, was awed by the wine cellar.
To be fair, it wasn't just the attitudes and experience of my dining companions that made the two visits different. At Bern's, your server can make or break an evening. With years of grueling training behind them, they can come off as knowledgeable and gracious or, sadly, supercilious and braggy. We had one of each. On our first visit, our server ran through all the Bern's hyperbole ("organic produce from our own garden," "largest restaurant wine list in the country," "in-house dry aging"), but never once asked if we were enjoying ourselves or if we needed anything. The second time, the waiter anticipated our needs, explained without condescending, cracked wise and generally charmed us.
This in turn helped us overlook some of the restaurant's foibles. Thirty years ago, people were grousing that the contents of this vast, windowless stucco box looked tired. "Bordello-like," "hideously ornate" — the adjectives were unkind. It's still all those things and really in need of updating. On our first visit we were tucked into a cozy alcove, its flocked wallpaper sporting a noticeable rip at eye level. Underneath the aromas of sizzling beef, perfume and brawny decanted red wines, Bern's smells like a library basement.
Okay, the interior needs some attention, we all know that. How's the food doing? A few things seem more tired than the decor: those tooth-achingly sweet shredded carrots that come with the steaks; the garlic and spelt crackers to start (no better than the cellophaned doozies in the cracker baskets of yore); the baked potatoes that somehow never seem to have a crisp skin. Even the salad seems more amateurish than fetchingly retro — why the avalanche of bland shredded cheese?
All of this is not enough to deter from the main attractions, the steaks and the wines. The by-the-glass list is as impressive as ever, with bargains at every price point; the full wine list studded with ready-to-drink, perfectly cellared finds if you have the time for major reading.
And the steaks: Not prime meats, but corn-fed beef aged for more intense flavor (the consequence of less water); the kitchen nearly infallible with cooking it as ordered. Delmonico, filet mignon and chateaubriand (prices vary by thickness and size) were all sexy in their own ways, texture and flavor needing a minimum of lily-gilding. Still, gild Bern's does, which is why the steak menu (as opposed to the nightly Kitchen within a Kitchen a la carte menu) is still a relative bargain. In a metro area increasingly crowded with $40 steak houses where everything's a la carte, Bern's steadfastly offers an inclusive menu.
This area's most landmark restaurant, what many critics have called a food-themed amusement park, Disney World without cartoon characters, is still doing what it does best. Yes, in some ways it has stayed the same while the world has moved on, but given a little context, it's still easy to appreciate.
Times researchers Caryn Baird and Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report. Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.