Trigger warning for extreme bougie content: WE DO NOT EAT LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME.
For years, my wife and I have been talking about going to the legendary Bern’s Steak House (https://bernssteakhouse.com/) in Tampa to celebrate a special occasion. It’s a long way to travel for a meal, but from all accounts, Bern’s is THE meal, the ultimate destination for foodie high-rollers or one-time wannabes like us. It doesn’t help that my wife doesn’t fare well on long car rides, but Bern’s actually owns its own hotel right across the street, the Epicurean Hotel (https://epicureanhotel.com/), to help break up the trip and give weary, stuffed travelers a chance to rest and digest.
Neither restaurant nor hotel are cheap, but we’ve been putting this off for years, we both celebrated some milestones at work recently, we had our ninth wedding anniversary to celebrate, and best of all, neither of us ended up hospitalized this year, after we both did in the summer of 2017. So for the first time ever, I was able to use some saved Marriott points and bought the rest of the points to cover a night at the Epicurean, for far less than it would have cost out of pocket. (I think I can best describe the regular room rate as “far out of our price range” or “What the hell is this, midtown Manhattan?”) And two months ago, I made a reservation at Bern’s, which gets booked up almost that far in advance. I can’t speak for my wife, but I can say I looked forward to it for weeks, fastidiously studying Bern’s voluminous menu in the meantime.
The menu is pretty much a treatise on steaks, which are the house specialty. Bern’s brags about serving dry-aged steaks, which I had never had before. With all honesty, I’m not a big steak eater, and I’d always prefer a good burger to a good steak, for reasons of taste, customizability, and value. But my wife LOVES a good steak, especially after I turned her onto ribeyes. This menu has pages and pages of steak descriptions, describing cuts of meat, cooking temperatures, thickness, aging, and so forth. I felt like I was researching engagement rings again!
But I’m jumping ahead. When we first arrived at Bern’s, the nondescript white building looked like it could have been anything but a fancy steakhouse: maybe an industrial warehouse or a factory. But stepping inside was like entering a different world, or at least a different century. The lobby looked like a set from Moulin Rouge: all red walls, dark wood, gold, giant portraits, and dim lighting, giving it all an anachronistic and otherworldly feeling, like 19th Century French brothel meets David Lynch’s Black Lodge. I was definitely feeling sensory overload, and my eyes had trouble adjusting to the low lights and everything there was to look at.
Our reservation was at 5:00, since we’re the youngest early bird diners you’ll ever meet. We met our server, Erhan, who was the best guy ever. He was our wise, patient, helpful guide through this extravagant evening, and we have never experienced better service anywhere. If we had a question, Erhan was there to answer it like the best reference librarians I’ve ever worked with (and I would know, since I am one). Apparently servers at Bern’s train for a year before they start out on the floor, and that painstaking training showed. You get the impression the man had seen and heard it all, and knew it all.
The appetizers beckoned. I love oysters, and I heard Bern’s oysters were among the best you can have anywhere. Unfortunately, my wife doesn’t care for oysters at all, and it would have felt wrong to order something she couldn’t enjoy too. Now that our weather is FINALLY getting cool, some $1 oyster nights are going to be on my agenda.
However, there was something even fancier, even rarer, even more celebratory that intrigued us both: CAVIAR. The menu has a whole page of caviar selections, ranging from semi-reasonable ($25) to ridiculous ($190). Over a decade ago, we attended the wedding of dear friends we never get to see anymore, and they had a caviar bar at their reception. I’m not sure how many of the other guests partook, but my wife and I went crazy, like cartoon cats at an all-you-can-eat bird buffet. We still talk about their storybook-perfect wedding and that caviar bar to this day, and this was our first opportunity to recreate the experience. Hey, this was a convergence of multiple special occasions, and I don’t think any Orlando restaurants even offer caviar. None of the places we go, anyway! The closest we get is masago on our spicy poke bowls.
My wife chose the very moderate (for caviar) black hackleback sturgeon, and Bern’s serves it with so many accoutrements, which I love. It came with the traditional Russian accompaniments of sour cream and the most finely-diced red onions, egg whites, and egg yolks I have ever seen, with the most perfect brioche toast points ever. It also came with six flavored foams as additional condiments, each one adding its own dimensions to the buttery, briny black pearls. I wish I could remember each one of the foams, dear Sabo-Squad, but there was definitely an avocado one (the green one), a potato and bacon foam (fourth one down), a curry foam (yellow), and a blue cheese foam (the one on the bottom, with blue cheese crumbles on top). I’m forgetting the first and third ones. Now, I am a sucker for any condiments and sauces, and they were neat, but the traditional sour cream, onions, and eggs went much better with the caviar.
This was so good, our eyes were rolling back in our heads. “Like a sturgeon! Touched for the very first time!”
What really completed the whole caviar ritual was a plate of six Yukon Gold potato blinis, perfectly soft potato pancakes that are nothing like the crispy, greasy, fried latkes I think of as potato pancakes. These blinis were lighter than air, soft and creamy, the ideal little pillows to top with a dollop of sour cream and a smaller dollop of black pearls. I am totally going to recreate them at home. They were too good, and they’d be great in place of traditional breakfast pancakes too. Imagine “silver dollar flappies” that just melt away in your mouth, and you have these blinis.
After we inhaled every single morsel of everything (my wife, to her credit, didn’t indulge in the condiments at all), Erhan returned to counsel us on steaks. At Bern’s, a party of two can split a larger steak if they want the same cut, which they recommend over each person ordering their own. We both wanted the Delmonico, which is their ribeye, and we chose a whopping 16-ounce steak to share, that is 1 3/4″ thick. Luckily, we both like our steaks rare, after a lifetime of restaurants and parents overcooking them. At Bern’s, they are so exacting that they have varying degrees of rare, but we opted for a warm red center and a slight outer crust. Erhan said they would even trim the outer fat and serve it on two separate plates, which was nice. These are all U.S.D.A. Prime steaks, by the way. You can occasionally find this highest quality meat at Costco, but rarely at supermarkets.
Best of all, all of Bern’s steaks come with a plethora of side orders, which is a million times better than most upscale steakhouses that serve everything a la carte and nickel-and-dime you to death with expensive sides (another reason I’m not a steakhouse fan). As pricey as Bern’s is (and it is), it is also a bargain if you just want a good steak dinner and some sides. The included sides are French onion soup, a house salad with a choice of housemade dressings, a baked potato that can be dressed with any combination of butter, sour cream, crumbled bacon, and chives, thin and crispy fried onion straws, and fresh vegetables from Bern’s own farm. What I didn’t realize was that ordering the larger steak for two meant we would get two of every side. I honestly thought we’d get one of each side and have to split them or decide who got what. Rube alert!
I already love French onion soup, and this was easily the best I’ve ever had. It was so rich and beefy and decadent, and came with garlic toast and spelt toast, a kind of grain we were both unfamiliar with. My wife really impressed me by digging into her soup. I love onions (and caramelize them all the time at home), but she really, really doesn’t like them (and hates the smell when I cook them). I thought it was cool that she not only took a risk by trying it, but that she ended up liking it. How could you not? Incredible French onion soup. My wife thought the spelt toast was like “teething biscuits,” and it was quite hard, but softened up nicely when dunked in the soup.
Next came the colorful house salads, with vegetables from Bern’s farm. I was very impressed that they peeled the tomatoes. WHO DOES THAT!?! I am always on a quest for good salad dressings to liven up my own salads, and I was excited by the list of Bern’s housemade dressings. My wife chose one of my top picks, a macadamia nut vanilla bean vinaigrette. I asked the ever-patient Erhan if I could sample two different dressings, and he hooked me up. Grateful, I chose maple dijon (I love mustards and anything mapley) and creamy white balsamic Italian. The salad was fine, but those three dressings were without a doubt the best salad dressings I’ve ever had, with the creamy white balsamic Italian in first place, then the vanilla bean vinaigrette. They each came in fancy little metal pitchers, and even when we were finished with our salads, I asked to keep the dressings to dip the forthcoming onion straws into. I wish Bern’s sold these salad dressings in bottles. Ken’s Steak House can do it, Bern’s! Why can’t you?
Finally, the steaks arrived, accompanied by the baked potatoes, onion straws, and two vegetables of the day, the most delicious, rich, buttery green beans and shredded carrots served with almonds. I’m not a baked potato guy, so I pretty much just ate the top part that was loaded with all the toppings. The steaks were superb, though. Cooked to absolute perfection, as you can see. Like I said, I’ve never had a dry-aged steak before, so I’m not enough of a connoisseur to tell a major difference in taste or texture. What I can say is that it was one of the finest steaks of my life. Top two, maybe, with only Christner’s right here in Orlando coming close.
I’ll also RING THE ALARM, even though the thin onion straws aren’t exactly onion rings. They were well-seasoned, crispy, not greasy at all, not overly salty, and held up to dipping in the remaining maple dijon dressing.
Well, at this point, we were pretty stuffed, but part of the iconic Bern’s experience is to go upstairs to finish your meal in the Harry Waugh Dessert Room, “built in 1985 using redwood wine casks to create 48 private rooms.” I get it — they want to clear tables in the main dining room, so ushering folks upstairs to a separate dessert room is genius. I paid our check (holy crap!), and we thanked Erhan profusely before heading off. Observant regular readers already know my wife and I don’t drink, but the bill could easily have been doubled if we did. As a result, we opted to skip the tour of Bern’s vaunted wine cellar, housing one of the largest collections of wine in the United States. To oenophiles, “cellar tour” might be the most beautiful-sounding phrase in the English language.
That said, we accepted their invitation to take a tour of Bern’s busy, bustling kitchen. (It’s not like we’re special people; they offer both tours to all diners.) The kitchen was where my wife really felt sensory overload, but the short behind-the-scenes tour was fascinating to me. I’ve never worked in restaurants even though so many of my friends did, but I’m fascinated by the process, of peering behind the curtain and seeing how the sausage is made (figuratively, in this case, as there is no sausage on the menu, nor even an awe-inspiring burger made from cuts of Bern’s fabulous steaks. What’s up with that?). The kitchen was HUGE — much larger than either of us could have ever imagined — with a gigantic, tireless staff.
Next, we took the elevator up to the Dessert Room, and they really aren’t kidding about the private rooms, except they’re more like booths. You really feel like you’re eating dessert inside of a phone booth made out of a giant wooden barrel. The quarters were tight, but intimate, and the dessert menu is also something to behold. This is where I feel like we both chose poorly (of course, we were no longer under Erhan’s protection up there), and they were the only disappointments of the evening. We heard so much hype about the housemade macadamia nut ice cream sundae, so that’s what my wife ordered. It was fine, I guess. I’m not into nuts or chocolate as much as she is, but I think even she thought it was just okay.
I guess we had a bit of miscommunication, because I ordered the Taste of Bern’s, a sampler that includes five desserts, expecting my wife would want to try all of them. It comes with Macadamia Decadence Cake, King Midas (a carrot nut cake topped with more freakin’ macadamia nut ice cream), banana cheese pie, chocolate cheese pie, and vanilla cheesecake. Little did I know that the five desserts would be literally mouse-sized portions, or that my wife would be too full to care about sampling all of them at that late point in the evening, almost three hours after we arrived. I liked the banana cheese pie morsel quite a bit (fourth one) and probably would have preferred a full serving of that. None of the others did much for me, I must admit. I love cheesecake like crazy, but I’ve had better. Oh well, we still had the experience.
Also, the Dessert Room barrel-booths all come equipped with a telephone and a series of buttons that play different music through a speaker: jazz, Broadway standards, pop, and live music from a piano player stationed somewhere on the premises. The phone is to call the piano player with requests. Well, most of the buttons didn’t work, and we didn’t want to try playing “stump the piano player” with contemporary requests, although I still wonder if he would have known any Tori Amos (for my wife), Tom Waits (for me), or St. Vincent (for both of us).
We practically rolled back to our hotel across the street, which was a godsend, and crashed for the night much earlier than usual. Aside from dessert being underwhelming for both of us, we have absolutely no regrets about going, spending the money, and finally getting the full Bern’s Steak House experience. But I asked my wife if she would ever want to go back, and she said no, it was fine, she had a great time, but she got it out of her system completely. I have to agree. I was, and am, content.
We were celebrating being married for nine years, being relatively healthy (especially compared to the last year), and feeling mostly stable and safe at our respective jobs, so it was worth a step out of our comfort zones for a night like this. I’m so grateful I was in the financial position to treat my wife to this little weekend anniversary getaway, but leaving Bern’s and checking out of the Epicurean Hotel the next morning felt like a return to reality, snapping out of this swanky fantasy and back to real life.
For better and for worse, Bern’s is a real time capsule — a piece of luxurious mid-Century Americana, at once tacky (the decor) and classy (pretty much everything else). I’m glad they have withstood the test of time and bravely doubled down on what they have always done, rather than submitting to trends, modernizing, and going more casual. This is the kind of place the Rat Pack would go if they went to Tampa back in the day, or where Henry Hill would have taken his wife (or possibly his mistress) if Goodfellas had a little side story set in Tampa. I’m imagining the interior monologues, sweeping Steadicam shots, and Scorsese’s swingin’ ’70s song choices even now. Bern’s does everything with the utmost care and the highest quality, and you get what you pay for. They certainly go out of their way to put you at ease (even though decadence and luxury make me uncontrollably uncomfortable every time) and give you an unforgettable evening.
But I promise you, fearless readers: my next restaurant review will feel more like classic Saboscrivner, with a trip to one of Tampa’s legendary bakeries that is over a century old. Stay tuned for TAMPAVERSARY PART 2!