On Tuesday, the James Beard Foundation announced this year's finalists for its annual culinary awards, commonly referred to as the Academy Awards of food. In the entire state of Florida, only one restaurant made the cut: Bern's Steak House.
A nearly 60-year-old Tampa legend, Bern's was named a finalist in the Outstanding Wine Program category.
With what is said to be the largest restaurant wine list in the country, Bern's will compete against two restaurants in Charleston, S.C., (FIG and McCrady's) and two in California (A16 in San Francisco and Spago in Beverly Hills).
Owner David Laxer credits his wine team — Brad Dixon, Eric Renaud and Josh Michael Shields — but much of the honor goes to his father, restaurant founder Bern Laxer, who died in 2002. "It goes back even before us because we still have many of the wines my father purchased that we're able to offer to diners. That's the foundation of our list, what he built over the years."
As Bern's public relations director Brooke Palmer explains, putting together a world-class wine list is more complicated than merely purchasing. Because it is illegal for a restaurant to buy aged wines at auction from private collections, a restaurant must have the forethought and space to purchase great wines young and cellar them appropriately until they are ready to be drunk.
"Two days a week (the wine team) goes over and spends time in the warehouse. It's the Home Depot of wine. There's so much in there that they are constantly discovering things. They have such intimate knowledge of our collection."
Last year Bern's nabbed a semifinalist nomination for Outstanding Restaurant, but failed to make the finalist cut. The only year Bern's, or any Tampa Bay restaurant, won a James Beard award was in 1992 when Bern's Steak House sommelier Derrick Pagan won for wine service.
Technically, Tampa Bay is in the running in a second category this year: St. Petersburg's Locale Market co-owner Michael Mina was named a finalist in the Outstanding Restaurateur category, largely on the strength of his Mina Group's 26 restaurants around the country. In addition, the Mina Group's Rajat Parr was named a finalist in the Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional category. Parr was instrumental in Locale's beverage program.
Greg Baker of Tampa's Refinery and Fodder & Shine did not make the finalist cut this year. He had once again been Tampa Bay's best hope, scoring his fourth James Beard Foundation semifinalist nod for Best Chef: South. (The Refinery received a nomination in 2011 for Best New Restaurant in the United States.) Otherwise this area was shut out, and Florida had zero contenders in the big categories (Best New Restaurant, Outstanding Restaurant, Outstanding Chef, etc.).
Laxer, who aims to attend this year's awards ceremony May 4, hosted by Alton Brown and held at Lyric Opera of Chicago, thinks Florida has made great gastronomic strides in recent years. But he says that the state may suffer from a perception problem.
"Maybe people still consider Florida a touristy destination, not for serious dining. But just looking at the local scene, and also that in Orlando, Jacksonville and other parts of Florida — there are amazing things going on in our state."
For a list of this year's finalists, go to jamesbeard.org.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.