TAMPA — Down the red carpeted hallway at Bern’s Steak House, past eight dining rooms, a bustling kitchen and an army of waiters in suits gliding between both worlds, there’s a set of stairs leading to an entire floor of dessert. Before you make it to the top, you can hear Kenny Haelsig.
If you’ve headed up for a nightcap in the Harry Waugh Dessert Room in the last two decades, there’s a chance this man has delighted you. Five nights a week, the piano man provides the soundtrack for the glitziest dessert in Tampa Bay.
Haelsig, 44, draws from a repertoire of over 300 songs from “All of Me” to “Zoot Suit Riot.” If you come up to his piano bench with a song that’s not on his list, chances are he can figure out how to play it on the spot.
This was his first steady restaurant job, and likely his last.
“You don’t get an atmosphere like that anywhere else,” he said. ”I’ve been working here for 23 years, and I hope I stay here for the whole rest of my career.”
A sweet start
When Bern and Gertrude “Gert” Laxer purchased the former Beer Haven property on Howard Avenue in the mid-1950s, they initially considered opening a soft-serve ice cream business, according to Times archives. Back then, the modest block in Hyde Park was also home to a liquor store, barbershop, pharmacy and bookstore.
The restaurateur couple couldn’t find a bank that would lend them money for such a project. So, they pivoted to serving beer and burgers. They would later end up buying the rest of the businesses on the block and transitioning to a steak house.
The entire vibe of the restaurant, starting with its windowless exterior, was designed to surprise patrons and plunge them into a fantasy world far from Tampa. According to the book “Bern’s Rare and Well Done,” the Laxers were inspired by European design. They scoured auctions for ornate antiques and hired seamstresses to create custom burgundy and gold wall coverings to match the aged steaks and wine on the menu. The lobby, with marble busts and moody red lighting, was once described by the Tampa Tribune as “half-brothel, half-spook house.”
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The Laxers would end up spending seven years working on the Harry Waugh Dessert Room, building and rebuilding it seven times according to the Bern’s book. The name comes from a famed British wine expert who inspired the Laxers while hosting them during a trip abroad.
At the time, there was no other restaurant in the country that boasted an entire floor for dessert, and Gert predicted that the dessert room would flop. The Laxers transformed their dust-covered attic by building 48 private booths out of aged redwood wine casks. They papered the walls with enlarged printouts of century-old books on wine. Each booth once had its own television screen to watch the piano player who performed in a lounge area on the same floor.
Manny Furia started playing music at Bern’s in 1967, roaming the dining room with an accordion. He later moved upstairs, behind the piano in the dessert room. While patrons tucked into macadamia nut ice cream or Cheesecake Gert, Furia showed off a repertoire that ranged from Dean Martin to heavy metal. He would later inspire Haelsig.
“He was a great mentor,” Haelsig told the Times in 2008. “He taught me how to interact with people. He helped me become a better entertainer for Bern’s.”
Meet the piano man
Past the private wine cask tables, the luckiest patrons in the dessert room are seated in a semicircle nook. Six curved booths, bathed in low crimson light, point toward Haelsig.
Under two bright spotlights, Haelsig is the focus of the room. He plays gracefully as his audience orders cappuccinos and whiskey flights. He is not distracted by plates of bananas foster and baked Alaska bursting into blue flame beside him.
Haelsig says his musical streak runs in his mom’s side of the family. He inherited his grandmother’s perfect pitch and started learning piano at age 3.
A trip to Bern’s Steak House is actually what kicked off his piano career. A Tampa native, his family would spend special occasions at the restaurant. He still can remember the first time he visited around age 8 or 9. It wasn’t the food that amazed him most, it was the phone next to his table, where he could call the pianist and send in a request.
Haelsig went on to study music at the University of South Florida. At 21, he decided to audition for an open position in the dessert room. He got the job on the first try.
“I enjoy pretty much any song that people want to hear,” he said. “As long as they’re happy, I’m happy.”
On a recent Wednesday night in October, Haelsig serenaded a young birthday girl wearing a pink crown, watching from behind her mom. He smiled at two little boys who stood on their toes to toss dollar bills into his tip jar. He wished two couples a happy anniversary, reminded countless others to watch their step and have a good night on the way out.
His audience wanted Gershwin and Beethoven, Van Morrison and Tracy Chapman. When two folks on a date night asked for “Ain’t No Sunshine,” a song Haelsig didn’t know well, he pulled it up on YouTube so he could improvise. He got close enough to have the audience toe-tapping and singing along.
“Newsflash,” he quipped after the bridge. “Bill Withers knows.”
A red light flickered on the phone behind him. He twisted around to answer it.
“Hello?” He paused. “I’d be more than happy to do that.”
Then his hands started moving again.
The opening bars of “Piano Man” filled the room.
Hear Kenny Haelsig at the Harry Waugh Dessert Room
Bern’s Steak House is located at 1208 S. Howard Ave., Tampa. Haelsig can be found playing piano upstairs in the Harry Waugh Dessert Room from 7 p.m. to midnight on Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The dessert room also has piano music on Thursdays, performed by another pianist. The restaurant is closed on Mondays.
The dessert room accepts reservations between 6 and 6:45 p.m. daily, though walk-ins for dessert are also welcome. Dinner patrons at Bern’s Steak House and sister restaurant Haven do not need to make additional reservations for the dessert room. For more information, visit bernssteakhouse.com/harry-waugh-dessert-room.
Information from the Tampa Bay Times archive as well as the book “Bern’s Rare and Well Done” by David and Christina Laxer was used in this report.