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SIDEBERN'S TO BE REBORN AS COMFORTING HAVEN

The new concept will be more peasant stew than foie gras.

When the doors reopen at 2208 W Morrison Ave. at the end of the year, it will no longer be SideBern's. Say hello to Haven, a midpriced wine bar restaurant.

SideBern's opened in 1996 as the award-winning New American little sister to Bern's Steak House. The closure signals a number of things, according to executive chef Chad Johnson.

"SideBern's had an amazing run. Jeannie (Pierola) started the process, and I did the second half, and we built a tremendous reputation. But my passions as a chef have changed and the market has changed."

At an all-star James Beard Foundation scholarship dinner at the Epicurean Hotel on Monday night, David Laxer, Bern's owner and Epicurean Hotel partner, announced the change of plans.

SideBern's closed June 24 to undergo what was announced as a serious gussying up. And although at the time Johnson insisted that the closure was not a signal that SideBern's was suffering from sibling rivalry, Laxer and Mainsail Lodging & Development and Marriott have rethought their original formula: Bern's was to be the archetypal high-end steak house, SideBern's serving more audacious New American upscale cuisine, and levage at the Epicurean aiming to be a more casual and affordable option focused on whimsical spins on American comfort foods. Taken together, the idea was that hotel guests could have three dramatically different dining experiences on the same block.

That "three points of a triangle" approach continues, but in a new vein. Haven will be that affordable point. Johnson described his own dish at the James Beard dinner as an indication of what's to come at Haven.

"(Monday) night, with the president of the James Beard Foundation sitting there, I served a peasant stew from Kentucky with a lima bean cake in the middle. Chefs are having the realization that if it tastes good, it tastes good. It doesn't have to be foie gras and truffles. Consumers have also realized that."

Johnson thinks that during the economic downturn chefs were forced to start re-evaluating what they were doing in light of fewer people dining out aided by lavish expense accounts. He says Haven will reflect this, with an extensive charcuterie (always one of his passions) and cheese program: A glass cheese cupboard, visible from the dining room, will store between 100 and 150 cheeses depending on the season, with a cheesemonger station in the dining room.

This, of course, builds on some of what SideBern's excelled at, having been near the top of Zagat's rankings for years, reinforced by Johnson's two James Beard Foundation semifinalist nods. The rest of the menu will adopt more of a small-plate focus, according to Johnson. And the decor takes a quantum leap.

"This all started as a casual conversation. We knew we were going to move the wine shop, so we started thinking about what we could do with the space and we decided to go all the way from scratch and completely reinvent ourselves. ... The interior will have a much more open feel, with outdoor seating on Howard Avenue. Inside will have a little more casual feel, with more natural elements."

The departure of SideBern's and arrival of Haven continues the winnowing of traditional fine-dining restaurants in the Tampa Bay area - but this is no indication that the sophistication level on S Howard might take a hit or that Haven will play it safe. Johnson says its wine list will still be powered by Bern's fabled cellar and the nearby wine shop, but will offer a broader range of price points than its elder sibling.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

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