Bern's Steak House

The wine cellar at Bern's
I don't remember how I first heard about Bern's Steakhouse. What I do remember, quite distinctly, is my disbelief when I found out that the largest wine cellar in North America (and I believe the 2nd largest in the world) resided in Tampa, FL. As a wine lover, I knew a trip to Bern's was inevitable and last March, I finally got my chance.

Bern Laxer, along with his wife Gert, opened Bern's in the 1950s. The story goes that Bern Laxer was a devoted wine buyer, traveling the world tasting and buying until his restaurant had one of the most respected cellars in the world. When I visited in March, they had some 200 wines available by the glass (check out their website for yourself, the by-the-glass list is downloadable and has 10 pages devoted to wine and 4 covering beer and cocktails) as well as thousands of choices by the bottle from their legendary cellar.

Walking in the door at Bern's, I was not expecting the interior. I'd seen pictures of course, but they don't prepare you for the "Bordello chic" experience. Heavy red curtains, velvet, leather, low lighting, all come together for the most surreal dining room I've ever eaten in.

When you finally sit down and get a glimpse of the mammoth wine list, it's pretty intimidating. I felt both giddy excitement and nerves, there were so many wines and so little time. My husband and I each started with a glass of white, Burgundy and a premier cru Chablis, respectively. Where else can you find such esteemed wines by the glass?

For me, the food was almost an afterthought. It is a steakhouse, after all. I knew we would both be getting steaks, the requisite baked potato and vegetables as well. But as we looked at the menu, I couldn't help but notice how reasonable the prices were. I am not saying that Bern's is a budget-friendly restaurant. It is a high end luxury place to be sure. They have a caviar menu where you can spend anywhere from $55-$200 for a taste, and the wine can be as expensive as your wallet allows (I believe they've got a couple of vintage Bordeauxs available for tens of thousands of dollars.)

But step back from the extravagance and look at the price of a steak dinner. $30 to $50 buys you not only a beautiful dry-aged steak, but soup, salad, sides and all. Go to an upscale steakhouse like Ruth's Chris or the Capitol Grill, and you pay the same price (and probably more) for the meat alone, likely doubling the price by the time you order soup, salad and sides. It's why I don't often eat at steak houses anymore. I can find and prepare a great dry-aged steak myself for a fraction of the cost and use the money I save for a nice bottle of wine. At these prices though, and with the selection of wines and more, I can see why Bern's draws the tourists like me while packing the house nightly with locals and repeat customers.

Anyway, back to the food. We upgraded to the table side Caesar salad, ordered our steaks and enjoyed our meal. The french onion soup was a bit salty, yes, but the salad was lovely, my steak perfectly cooked, and the sides were as expected. High quality, well-prepared, and delicious.

Let's not pretend that I was there for the food though. We spoke for a bit with the Sommelier and ended up getting a gorgeous Cote-Rotie from the Northern Rhone region of France. Primarily Syrah with a bit of Viognier, the wine blew me away. Meaty, smoked ham and bacon on the nose changed over the course of the meal to reveal black fruits, with stunning structure and tannins. I was delighted.

Rare bottles under lock and key

Before heading to the dessert room, (yes, dessert is served in a separate area, upstairs in individual, enclosed booths) we needed a bit of time to digest, so we went on the tour of the kitchens and wine cellar, learning a bit more about the restaurant's history and current operations. It was nice for stretching out your legs and the cellar was a joy to behold.

The rarest bottles are kept in a pad-locked portion of the cellar (left) and are wrapped in plastic because, for many of the old bottles, the labels degrade and can fall off a wine bottle. This ensures that the label stays with its appropriate wine.

Dessert, like dinner, was again about the wine. We ordered a sampling of ice creams, but were more interested in their selection of Madeiras.

We ended up doing a flight, 4 Madeiras each 15 yrs old, Sercial, Verdelho, Bual & Malmsey as well as a 1900 vintage Malmsey so we could taste the difference a century makes. Phenomenal, and an experience that is not easily replicated.

Now that my pilgrimage is complete I am, for the moment, satisfied, but looking for an excuse to return.

Bern's Steak House
1208 S. Howard Ave.
Tampa, FL 33606

Have you been to Bern's Steak House? Do you have a recommendation for another restaurant with a killer wine cellar?

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