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The Good Life

Bern's Steak House, Tampa, Florida

By Gordon Mott | From Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

There is nothing ordinary about Bern's Steak House. You come upon the restaurant in the middle of a nondescript business district flanked by equally nondescript one-story homes. The parking lot is crowded. If the decor in the foyer reminds you of an old movie theater with crimson walls and gilt figures, there's a good reason. When Bern Laxer started the place in 1956, he went to theaters slated for demolition and bought old artifacts right off the walls. The gaudy decor sets the stage for the meal to come.

Bern's Steak House is about beef. The menu is filled with rich, high-calorie appetizers such as onion soup, escargot, Caesar salad. But the menu's centerpiece is the listing of cuts of beef. Each cut--filet mignon, New York Strip, Delmonico, T-bone--is described in a brief paragraph on its relative tenderness and flavor. You can choose sizes starting at about eight ounces and going up to a gargantuan 24 ounces for most cuts. Based on each size's estimated thickness, a precise description is provided to help you order to the preferred degree of "doneness." A 10-ounce Delmonico cut was absolutely delicious, aged with a perfect hint of mustiness and tender enough to cut with one slice of the knife.

David Laxer, the son of founder Bern, now oversees the day-to-day operation of the restaurant. He says the restaurant averages 500 dinners a night. He proudly points out the four seawater tanks--each about eight feet tall and big enough to swim in--in which fish are kept for health-conscious diners. In fact, Bern's uses the freshest ingredients possible, relying on its own organic farm for much of its seasonal produce, growing its own bean sprouts and baking its own bread, including a wonderful garlic toast that arrives at the table unsolicited.

This restaurant also owns one of the most extraordinary wine cellars in the world and has been a recipient of the Wine Spectator Grand Award for outstanding wine lists for more than a decade. It has more than 6,500 separate entries. It is almost impossible to order a wine in a specific vintage that they don't have. The wine list itself is a good-sized book, at 212 pages. The fair pricing includes gems from Bordeaux like a 1945 Château Latour, $1,525; a 1947 Château Cheval Blanc, $1,499; a 1953 Château Margaux, $592; and a 1961 Château Mouton-Rothschild, $690. Other wines include a 1969 Romanée Conti, $990 and a 1966 Chambertin, Armand Rousseau, $289. There is a whole range of value wines, too, with dozens of bottles for under $35.

Save the best for last. In homage to Englishman Harry Waugh, a friend of Bern Laxer's, the restaurant created an upstairs dessert room where cigars are more than welcome. Several hundred dessert wines, from Port to Madeira and sweet white wines are offered by the ounce, and you can taste 100-year-old Madeiras and Ports to your heart's content or wallet's resilience. The entire upstairs is designed in a series of alcoves set off a circular passage. The rooms are designed with portals, so there is privacy for everyone. They range in size from an intimate setting for two to a larger room that can easily accommodate 10 to 12. There is a separate after-dinner-drinks menu, so you can peruse the list at your leisure in your own little retreat from the hubbub of the restaurant. The desserts are standard, but the humidor is not. Reflecting the Laxers' hometown allegiance, the humidor contains a good selection of Cuesta-Rey cigars, as well as Davidoff and Arturo Fuente. "Cigars for us are a natural fit. [The dessert room is] a more relaxing environment to enjoy a nice cigar," says David Laxer. In fact, the privacy afforded by the alcoves makes it possible to truly relax and enjoy a cigar without fear of anyone complaining or interfering in your pleasure.

Bern's Steak House is definitely a cigar-friendly outpost. It is worth a detour to Tampa for its great steak, some of the greatest wine-list values in the world and a chance to settle back with a fine smoke. If you have any doubts as you drive up to the restaurant, they will be dispelled as you settle into your seat and begin studying the extensive menu and wine list, and you anticipate retiring upstairs afterward for your cigar in the Harry Waugh room. Bern Laxer designed the restaurant to fulfill the complete dining experience, and that's what it remains today.

--Gordon Mott

Bern's Steak House
1208 South Howard Avenue
Telephone: (813) 251-2421
Dinner only: about $35 per person, without wine

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