1208 S Howard Ave., Tampa, FL 33606
Features: Date night
Payment options: Credit cards accepted
Alcohol: Full bar
More in this neighborhood: South Tampa
What you see: An army of carvers, cooks, prep workers and waiters move briskly about in a bright, clean kitchen occupying more space than the dining rooms. The 10-minute tours are led mostly by waiter trainees, part of a nearly two-year stint before becoming full-time servers, including time working at the restaurant’s organic farm and a three-hour verbal exam. The typical tour starts at the carving station, where each steak is cut to order (and if you’re there the right day, you can watch them break down huge slabs of meat for aging). Move on to the cast iron grill built in-house, the soup station, the salad prep, the seafood carvers. On the way, you learn food prep Bern’s style: Grow the vegetables (even the bean sprouts for salads), roast the coffee, bake the croutons, age the beef (five to eight weeks). And no yelling or cursing or Gordon Ramsay-style confrontations.
Main event: The wine cellar, a dark, cool (always 50 degrees), quiet, cavernous space lined with shelves that reach to the ceiling, holding 100,000 or so bottles from 6,500 labels, each numbered and entered into a computer for tracking. Though 3,500 square feet, this is just the working cellar, with only 20 percent of the total inventory that makes it the largest restaurant wine collection in the world. The rest is in a warehouse across the street; it’s not part of the restaurant tour.
Biggest wow: Gaping at a Civil War-era bottle of Lomelino Madeira. Price: $105 per half-ounce. And it’s not even the oldest bottle in the house (that would be an 1827 Madeira, kept upstairs in the dessert room).
Biggest disappointment: No free taste of the Civil War-era bottle of Madeira.
Best part: It’s free and it’s what helps make Bern’s more than dinner out — it’s an experience.
Some history: The kitchen and wine cellar tour used to be an open secret among regulars. Now waiters offer a tour before they take an order and at least 85 percent take it, says owner David Laxer. His late father, Bern Laxer, who opened the restaurant in 1956, started the tours in the early ’70s. “My dad was always excited about the kitchen and what goes on behind the scenes,’’ says Laxer, 45. On busy nights, the tours run constantly, sometimes three at a time. But don’t feel like you’re getting in the way. “Our staff is used to it,’’ Laxer says. “They enjoy it.’’
-- Tom Scherberger, Times staff writer
See what it's like on the tour with this video report.