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Epicurean Hotel opens as legacy to Bern's Steak House founder

TAMPA — To celebrate the opening of the food- and wine-inspired Epicurean Hotel, officials swapped the traditional ribbon cutting for a "steak-cutting ceremony'' using an aged strip steak cooked by the executive chef in the new culinary classroom.

It was a fitting tribute to the late Bern Laxer, founder of the famed Bern's Steak House across the street whose legacy made the hotel possible.

The Epicurean Hotel opens today at 1207 S Howard Ave., a partnership between the steak house and Tampa-based Mainsail Lodging and Development Group. Nearly a decade in the making, the 137-room hotel has a restaurant, rooftop bar, wine store, pastry shop, culinary classroom, banquet room, pool and spa.

Hotel employees, investors and public officials gathered Tuesday to tour the four-story Epicurean and attend a staff pep rally with Plant High School marching band members banging pots and pans to rousing applause.

"All I can say is 'Wow,' '' said Bern's Steak House owner David Laxer, whose father started the restaurant in 1956. "To see this come to fruition is amazing.''

The hotel caters to foodies seeking a unique gastronomic experience in the heart of Tampa's historic Hyde Park.

"Our tagline for this hotel is to awaken appetites unknown,'' said general manager Tom Haines.

Mainsail president Joe Collier described what he hopes will become a typical guest's stay: Eat dinner at Bern's, grab a nightcap at the hotel's rooftop bar, go biking along nearby Bayshore Boulevard, eat breakfast in the restaurant, get a massage in the spa, take a cooking class, then rest at the pool.

The $35 million project is the first built-from-scratch hotel in the United States to join Marriott International's Autograph Collection. But you won't see a Marriott logo anywhere in the hotel. Most items were custom designed for the Epicurean, from the wine-cork wreath at the front desk to decorative bed pillows showing a spoon, fork and knife. It's quaintly urban, with the din of cars passing on the bordering Lee Roy Selmon Expressway audible from the pool.

Central to the hotel is the Epicurean Theatre, a 40-seat culinary classroom with amphitheater-style seating and a kitchen for food presentations, cooking classes and iron chef competitions. Classes starting in February will cover everything from the History of the Cocktail to Sustainable Winemaking and Seafood.

Chad Johnson, a 2012 James Beard Best Chef South Region semifinalist, heads up Elevage, an 80-seat restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Pastry chef Kim Yelvington was tapped to run Chocolate Pi, a patisserie opening next month.

Room prices range from $200 to $300 a night and New Year's Eve is already sold out.

Laxer first floated the idea of a boutique hotel in 2003 as a complement to Bern's Steak House and its adjacent sister restaurant, SideBern's. The project met resistance from neighboring residents concerned about adding traffic to busy Howard Avenue but eventually was approved.

The hotel was slated to open in 2008 but was shelved when the real estate market crashed and Laxer was unable to secure financing. Plans were revived and tweaked as the economy improved, and Mainsail Lodging joined as a partner.

Officials said Tuesday that the final result was better than earlier concepts, which included a hotel with fewer rooms but also private townhouses. The hotel is better integrated with the neighborhood and the exterior is more attractive, said Bob McDonaugh, the city of Tampa's administrator of economic opportunity.

Vicki Pollyea, president of the Bayshore Gardens Neighborhood Association, said she was disappointed the project didn't come back for another city review when it was resurrected and revised. The current 137 rooms are considerably more than the 86 once planned and the rooftop bar, banquet room and other amenities will generate even more traffic and parking snarls.

"I think it's an asset and something the community really wants, but I really wish that the neighborhoods had had the opportunity to be more involved,'' said Pollyea, noting that her association was not invited to Tuesday's grand opening event.

Still, she was hopeful officials would address concerns once the hotel was up and running and fully operational.

As an extension of the Epicurean, Laxer said he planned to spruce up the blah exterior of Bern's Steak House with landscaping and other improvements this summer. He also might upgrade — but not replace — the iconic Bern's Steak House sign.

He said his father, who died in 2002, would have liked a hotel devoted to the pursuit of culinary excellence.

"I don't know if he would have built the hotel because he was so focused on the steakhouse, but he loved improving his knowledge and discovering new things,'' Laxer said.

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110. Follow her on Twitter @susan_thurston.

Epicurean Hotel opens as legacy to Bern's Steak House founder 12/17/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 17, 2013 11:48pm]

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