Whether you need a reminder of simpler times or are looking for a deal, the steak sandwich at Bern's Steak House is Tampa's best open secret.
Bern and Gert Laxer had been married for about a year when they decided to leave New York City in 1951 and move out west. But first, Bern wanted to visit his aunt Rose, who ran an unusual eatery in Tampa. Her Cameo Tea Room had specialized in chop suey and chow mein since the 1930s. Watching Rose work the kitchen during meals, they vowed never to own a restaurant. But they quickly forgot their oath and bought the tiny Gator Juice Bar in a Cass Street arcade.
They turned the space into a lunch spot called Little Midway. Bern quit his advertising job to pitch in and cook breakfast. Their early specialties were humble: sandwiches, pimiento cheese and fresh doughnuts.
In 1956, the couple took over the Beer Haven, a bar on Howard Avenue (today Bern's Bordeaux Room). The couple was so poor they had to butcher the previous business' sign to create their own. Intending to name it Bern and Gert's Steak House, they could only form "Bern" from the old lettering. After a year of hard work, they spent the money for the sign to read "Bern's."
Bern's had no pretentions but plenty of ambition. While Gert worked the dining room, Bern commanded the kitchen, obsessing over every aspect of the business: eggs, ice cream, beef, produce, wine and so on. Disgusted by tomato deliveries, he resolved to start his own organic farm, hauling manure for compost from local stables and farms. Eventually, he bought out the businesses housed in the building around him.
The restaurant's notoriously tacky bordello décor was introduced during the permissive days of the 1960s and '70s. Bern's wine list in 1974 weighed in at 1,236 pages and was still a work in progress. In 1984, it topped 2,100 pages, complete with fold-out maps of various wine regions, interviews with winemakers and copious reference information on varietals. The Harry Waugh dessert room, inspired by the British author (and Bern's friend), was added in 1984. Son David Laxer took over the business in 1993 and SideBern's opened in 1996. Bern passed away in 2002.
I respect and admire Bern's Steak House. I appreciate that one can get a full meal (six-ounce filet with soup, salad and sides) for as little as $30. Still, there is something to be said for the 1950s version of Bern's, before it all became so big, so formal, with all those heavy red curtains and tuxedoes. Back then, people came for cold beer and 98-cent steak sandwiches with little fuss. Bare-chested fishermen were as welcome as white-collar workers.
Bern's still sells that steak sandwich, but don't look for it on the menu. Ask for it at the bar, a far more casual Bern's experience than the dining room ritual; Bern himself seemed to wear shorts most of the time, and a little out of place in the plush dining rooms.
One doesn't have to be nostalgic to appreciate the sandwich — it's also the cheapest meal in the place. When one takes into account that an order of pommes frites costs $7.95, the steak sandwich plate is a steal at $10.95. Best of all, those amazing desserts are served at the bar, too.