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A virus strikes and the world taps pause and whatever felt normal now isn’t. But there is one force no pandemic can stop, and that’s time.
My wife turned 40 this weekend. We’re not big birthday people, but a round number’s a round number. At any other point in history — say, January, when I hit 40 — we’d have gone out for a nice meal to celebrate.
But with restaurants shuttered up due to the coronavirus and social distancing, a night out for fine dining wasn’t possible.
Or was it?
Enter Bern’s Steak House. Tampa’s white-linen landmark announced Thursday it would start offering carryout orders from a limited menu, for those who demand their creamed spinach on the go. They even have kids’ meals with chicken tenders.
We’d been cooped up with a 7-year-old and a 3-year-old all day, so we figured: Why not?
Apparently, a lot of people thought the same thing.
When I called around 5 p.m. Friday, the Bern’s to-go line was so overwhelmed I couldn’t even get to the line. I reached a menu, then an answering service, where I learned I couldn’t be placed on hold, much less place an order, and I should try back in five to 10 minutes. Three times, this happened. When I finally reached the promised land of “hold,” it was another five to 10 before I could give my order — which, per Bern’s social media accounts, I expected to take about 30 to 40 minutes to fill.
“Okay,” the lady told me. “That’ll be about an hour and a half.”
“An hour and a half,” I repeated, halfway across Gandy with two hangry kids in the back.
After 90 tense minutes of South Tampa sightseeing, I hopped past the Teslas and Beamers out front and into Bern’s opulent bar. What diners there were sat tables apart, forking lavish salads on Florida’s final night of dine-in. Others hunched over wine and three-olive martinis, their last public drinks for a while. The rest of us curbside plebes curled up as small as possible, arms folded, tucked into our phones, touching nothing.
When I returned with our bags full of to-go boxes, it was clear our 3-year-old son wasn’t waiting for dinner any longer. So we parked in a lot across Bayshore from the water, flattened our minivan’s back row and spread out a poor man’s rich man’s picnic.
What you realize, when you pick at French onion soup and pomme frites in the back of a Toyota Sienna, is just how much ambience matters. Bern’s is an experience. You are swept into this blood-red bordello of beef and fine Burgundy for hours at a time, ushered from table to kitchen to cellar to dessert room as if you’re the President of Meat. You leave awed, exhausted, so much so that the food itself becomes an afterthought.
Outside the restaurant, it’s just food. It’s starch and protein, salt and fat. You wolf it up in hungry gulps, racing the kids, savoring nothing but the strangeness of it all.
Those aforementioned pomme frites — sneering, no doubt, at their Wendy’s cousins lodged in the floorboard — were fine. The kids’ chicken tenders? Eh, give me PDQ. The steak? My wife’s filet was overdone, but I’ve never had a better backseat Delmonico. The potato was a potato.
Some of it (the French onion soup, the mushrooms) held up on the go, and our shared pint of macadamia nut ice cream was, as expected, delish. On balance, though, it might as well have been Outback. The pickup would have been easier.
For a while, at least, we’re living in a curbside culture, and some places do that better than others. When this all passes, Bern’s can go back to doing its rarefied thing.
Still, when it comes to only-in-Tampa, only-in-a-pandemic experiences, there are worse nights out than carryout Bern’s with your kids in a minivan. Time marches on; these days won’t last forever. Let’s enjoy little pleasures while we can.
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