I had a specific vision for my 35th birthday.
Relaxation mostly. Bathrobe. Wine. Maybe a massage or a pool. Food, food, food. A handful of close friends. I did some research at beach hotels in Clearwater and St. Pete Beach and found the price range out of reach. The search eventually led me to Tampa's Epicurean Hotel on S Howard Avenue, a lovely food- and wine-focused boutique hotel from the Marriott Autograph Collection, developed in collaboration with Bern's Steak House and Mainsail Lodging & Development. I was surprised to find a better room price there at less than $200. (Prices vary depending on the night.) Sold. But what to eat?
I realized getting out of the hotel would be an exciting culinary adventure, although it meant changing out of the bathrobe. I planned a dinearound with friends, with appetizers, dinner and dessert at three different Bern's properties. Valet parking is $5 at the hotel, and you can walk everywhere.
STOP 1: Elevage
Epicurean Hotel, 1207 S Howard Ave., Tampa. (813) 999-8726. epicureanhotel.com/taste/elevage.
Well, technically Stop 1 was the lobby of the Epicurean, and then the hotel's Spa Evangeline, where I had a massage thanks to a generous spousal birthday gift. Staff foisted wine on us at every turn. When they found out it was my birthday, because I wouldn't shut up about it, the spa gave me a giant slice of birthday cake from Chocolate Pi, the confectionery on the hotel's ground floor. So that was nice. The official Stop 1, though, was to meet friends for apps at the hotel's restaurant, Elevage.
The offerings at happy hour are different every night, chef's choice, and on our dinearound we enjoyed black bean hummus with pita and a creamy risotto. Happy hour runs seven days a week from 3 to 7 p.m., with select cocktails and wines for $5 and select beers for $2 to $4. Also, the patio makes for great iPhone portrait mode photo-taking before the sun goes down.
STOP 2: Haven
2208 W Morrison Ave., Tampa. (813) 258-2233. haventampa.com.
About a three-minute walk away is Haven, which gladly took a reservation for a large group. Formerly SideBern's, Haven opened in 2015. Executive chef Chad Johnson and chef de cuisine Courtney Orwig offer creative dishes and a major cheese program. We were pretty ready to pig out by this hour, plied by all that vino. I tucked into my favorite bite of the night, Cauliflower Carbonara with pecorino, ham, sage, black pepper and egg ($12), plus a baguette sliced tableside and served with koroneiki olive oil, hibiscus and spiced butter ($4) and the piece de resistance shared among our group: the cheesemonger plate of 18 different cheeses ($47). The mood was convivial, the lighting right, the volume manageable and the service helpful. So helpful, in fact, that when we said we wanted to go next door to the Harry Waugh Dessert Room at Bern's Steakhouse for dessert rather than stay at Haven, our server offered to call over.
STOP 3: Harry Waugh Dessert Room at Bern's Steakhouse
1208 S Howard Ave., Tampa. (813) 251-2421. bernssteakhouse.com/harry-waugh-dessert-room.
A bit of gossip. We're 98 percent sure we saw Jill Kelley — remember the socialite of political yore? — in the bar at Bern's. By this part of the evening, one eagle-eyed member of our party noticed and texted me. I don't know, give me a break. It felt intriguing.
But that's how it feels to be at Bern's, a Tampa classic with a vibe of bygone elegance where you're likely to run into someone of prominence on any given night. And here's what you need to know about getting into the Harry Waugh Dessert Room, named for the wine connoisseur and friend to the late Bern Laxer. If you have dinner at Bern's, you get first dibs on a seat inside the wine barrels-turned-booths in the Dessert Room, which does not take outside reservations. But, if you have dinner at other Bern's properties, you get second dibs. So your odds of getting in to the Dessert Room if you've been to Haven or Elevage? Solid.
There are dozens of desserts, from Banana Cheese Pie and Cheesecake Gert ($9.95) to Baked Alaska ($13.95) and Bananas Foster ($28 for two, flambeed tableside). Plus, there's an extensive selection of dessert wines and spirts. I was overcome with indecision and ordered the Taste of Bern's to share, a sampler with Macadamia Decadence Cake, King Midas, Banana Cheese Pie, Chocolate Cheese Pie and Vanilla Cheesecake ($18).
STOP 4: EDGE Social Drinkery
Roof of Epicurean Hotel. (813) 999-8731. epicureanhotel.com/taste/edge.
Let's be honest. After everything outlined above, the rooftop cocktail back at the hotel bar did not last very long. I needed the warm embrace of full-bellied sleep, and fast. But it was nice to get a breath of fresh air before retiring to the room. They don't mind if you take your glass with you. Breakfast? That slab of cake from Chocolate Pi. Don't judge.