This year's only Tampa Bay James Beard finalist came up gold, the first year our area has medaled in the "Academy Awards of food" since Bern's Steak House sommelier Derrick Pagan won for wine service in 1992. Who was our big winner this year?
Bern's Steak House.
Bern's was named a finalist in this year's Outstanding Wine Program category. With what is said to be the largest restaurant wine list in the country, Bern's competed against Canlis in Seattle, Commander's Palace in New Orleans, FIG in Charleston, S.C., and Sepia in Chicago.
And on Monday night, the nearly 60-year-old Tampa legend trounced the competition at the 2016 James Beard Foundation Awards held at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Presided over by TV personality, chef and restaurateur Carla Hall, dozens of awards were given out in the Restaurant and Chef and Outstanding Restaurant Design categories, as well as a number of special achievement awards, including the Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America, Lifetime Achievement, Design Icon, America's Classics and Humanitarian of the Year.
Winners of the Foundation's annual Book, Broadcast, & Journalism Awards were presented on April 26 at a ceremony and dinner at Pier 60 at Chelsea Piers in New York City, hosted by James Beard Award winner and TV personality Ming Tsai.
Bern's owner David Laxer credits his wine team — Brad Dixon, Rachel Healy and senior sommelier Eric Renaud — as well as the foundational work of his father and restaurant founder Bern Laxer, who died in 2002.
"Winning this award is not only a win for us but for Tampa Bay and Florida," Laxer said Tuesday. "It's a true testament to the memory of my father, and even more special as this is our 60th year in business. The nominees this year were outstanding, and it was incredible to be in such great company. We hope to continue the tradition of excellence in our wine, food and service in all of our restaurants for years to come."
Building a world-class wine list is about more than deep pockets. It's about forgoing just what's trendy and thinking about the future. 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.
Bern's public relations director Brooke Palmer Kuhl said that the Bern's wine team gathers twice weekly to dive deep into what she calls the "Home Depot of wine."
Last year Bern's nabbed a semifinalist nomination for Outstanding Restaurant, but failed to make the finalist cut, as did Refinery chef Greg Baker, who has had a semifinalist nod for the past five years for the Best Chef: South category. Technically, Tampa Bay had been 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, on the strength of his Mina Group's 26 restaurants around the country, but that honor this year went to Ken Friedman of the Spotted Pig and other New York restaurants.
At Monday's awards ceremony, New Orleans' Shaya was named Best New Restaurant and Chicago's Alinea received the award for Outstanding Restaurant. Los Angeles made out big: Suzanne Goin of Lucques won Outstanding Chef, while Best Chef: West (CA, HI, NV) honors went to Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Animal. (Dotolo has Tampa Bay roots, having grown up in Clearwater.)
After the awards ceremony, chefs collaborated on a gala reception for 2,000 people, former James Beard Foundation Award recipients creating dishes inspired by their favorite television shows and characters.
According to Palmer Kuhl, gala highlights included brisket from Aaron's BBQ in Franklin, Tenn., and roses from Château d'Esclans. And at a private party at Grant Achatz's new Roister, the Bern's team hobnobbed with culinary A-listers such as Achatz and partner Nick Kokonas, Thomas Keller, John Besh, Daniel Humm and Jonathan Waxman. (Waxman, according to Palmer Kuhl, shared memories of Bern Laxer with son David.)
All JBF Award winners receive a certificate and a medallion engraved with the James Beard Foundation Awards insignia. There are no cash prizes.
For a less well-known restaurant, a Beard win means an instant hike in reservations and sales. For a nationally famous steak house such as Bern's, the payoff is different — on a recent Friday night the wait for a table in the Harry Waugh Dessert Room upstairs was 90 minutes. It adds to the restaurant's cumulative lore, but also helps establish Tampa Bay as a worthy dining destination.
Still, Laxer said, being up on the stage to accept Monday's award was as "nerve-wracking, exciting and as amazing as you would think. It is surreal to be on that stage, knowing all the people that have been there before. We were in very good company."
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.