A Half-Million Reasons to Tour the Wine Cellar at Bern’s Steak House
By Janet K. Keeler
In tightly cramped quarters, rows and rows of square bins holding single bottles of wine are easily double the height of the tallest NBA player. The facing cubbyholes seem to narrow at the far end of each aisle, creating a carnival fun house effect, but there’s nothing funny about this seriously complete wine collection.
As you walk past the neatly ordered bottles, looking up and then down, you may feel disoriented, especially if you start counting. The legendary Bern’s Steak House in Tampa sells 200 wines by the glass, with vintages dating to 1973 and boasts 6,800 unique labels. You will lose track quickly. Give in and breathe deeply the aroma of wine enveloping you in the 50-degree cellar. Hold your gasps as you pass the locked rare room where each bottle goes for $1,000 and up. Plastic bags protect the labels.
For diners with thinner wallets, there are wines to enjoy in a variety of price ranges, including a label or two around $5 a glass. The wine list is updated several times a year.
What’s almost more amazing than the fact that Bern’s Steak House houses more than half a million bottles of wine in two locations, is that diners are welcome to check out the bounty in the back reaches of the restaurant. That’s where the bins can hold up to 100,000 bottles. The rest are in the 3,600-square-foot wine warehouse nearby. Bern’s has one of the largest, if not the largest, collection of wines on the planet.
A couple of hundred people take the free kitchen and wine tour each night after they’ve dined on French onion soup, aged porterhouse steaks and the veggie of the day. It is a unique offering from a unique restaurant that has been serving fine steaks and impeccable service to everyday diners and celebrities in Tampa for more than 60 years.
After the tour, many patrons head upstairs to the Harry Waugh Dessert Room, where private and very dark spaces extend the evening with Bananas Foster and all sorts of chocolate creations. More wine, after-dinner libations or specialty coffee drinks can be ordered there, too.
It’s not uncommon to see a current or former Tampa mayor or professional baseball player, most likely a New York Yankee, holding court in the restaurant lounge, which is a great perch for people-watching. Staff might be able to squeeze your party in here for dinner if you arrive without a reservation and are willing to wait. Word from the wise: make a reservation. Your waiter will ask when you are seated if you’d like to take the tour and/or visit the dessert room; no need to reserve in advance.
Actor Tom Cruise is said to have climbed a ladder in the wine cellar looking for something special. Some of Tampa’s best chefs dine on oysters and other favorite dishes late in the lounge on the nights their own restaurants are closed or after they’ve finished service. And Bern’s has long been a spot for birthday, anniversary and engagement celebrations. There might be as many guys who’ve popped the question here as pricey French Champagne bottles have been uncorked.
Bern Laxer, the innovative restaurant founder who died in 2002, began the tours in the 1970s, long before the Food Network offered glimpses into the inner workings of the professional kitchen, said son David Laxer, now owner and caretaker of Bern’s esteemed reputation.
Bern Laxer “believed that it was important for people to see the hard work that goes into making their meals and how wines are properly stored for them to enjoy. This also allowed our server trainees to interact with guests and get over any stage fright before they actually were out in the dining rooms waiting tables,” said David Laxer. Many of the wait staff has been with Bern’s for more than 20 years.
On a recent evening, senior sommelier Brad Dixon squired us through the kitchen and into the cellar. Bern’s has three “somms” and a wine director carrying on the tradition started by Bern Laxer of scouring the globe to keep the comprehensive collection relevant and stocked.
They are doing a lot right. Bern’s won the 2016 James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Program, cementing what David Laxer and the somms already knew. Wine is part of Bern’s DNA. Still, the national award, sometimes called the Academy Awards of food, humbled the staff. It was Bern’s second James Beard. Then sommelier Derrick Pagan won for wine service in 1992.
“To be recognized by one’s peers is the highest form of acknowledgement and I believe it speaks to Bern’s commitment to our wine program from the restaurant’s early years,” David Laxer said of the 2016 award.
His dad was a beer guy when he started his burger and steak joint in the mid-1950s but became interested in wine soon after as the restaurant morphed into a fine dining establishment. He traveled to the legendary wine regions of France and then to California in the 1970s when winemaking began to make huge leaps there. The restaurant cellars still have many bottles purchased by Bern Laxer.
Today, David Laxer said, wine purchasing is more strategic and analytical because the “dollars are bigger now” and there is much more information available to both the consumer and the wine buyer.
“My father always said that the winemaker put so much effort into producing a bottle of wine that we had a certain obligation to receive, store and serve that wine so as to represent that winemaker’s efforts,” he said.
Back to that tour with Brad Dixon: Dixon leads us to the kitchen where all tours start. Visitors quickly learn to hug the sides so that the staff can work around them. It’s organized chaos for sure, with dozens of cooks, bartenders, prep folks and others laser-focused on their tasks. Steaks are hand-cut at one station, and then cooked on a 30-square-foot cast-iron grill, fueled mostly by hickory. In another area, seafood is tended to, including the shucking of oysters, some to be served on the half shell with horseradish sorbet, among other accouterments. Twenty types of caviars are carefully stored so as not to lose their salty vibrancy.
Food for composting is scraped off dishes as they return to the kitchen. One person spends the evening putting slices of Swiss cheese atop the French onion soup before it goes under the broiler. Make sure you watch the rotating cylindrical contraption that slices the onions. That’s a Bern Laxer invention, along with the coffee bean roaster he converted from a mid-1800s peanut roaster. There’s a spice grinder, too, and trays of freshly grown sprouts that will be plucked to put atop the house salad.
And, with all the orchestrated movement, staff still finds time to smile at the wide-eyed visitors.
The tour moves from the kitchen to the wine cellar. It’s a tight fit and even in warm Florida, you might wish for a sweater. The 50-degree temperature is for the benefit of the wine, not so much the comfort of humans.
Dixon rattles off lots of facts about the collection, with questions about how many bottles always the highlight. (Up to a half-million give or take in the two locations.) So, too, are queries about the most valuable bottle, and right now that’s an 1875 Chateau Gruaud-Larose worth about $36,000, he said. That’s doesn’t mean it’s the tastiest, though. In fact, the taste is really unknown.
What is known, though, is that the kitchen and wine tour at Bern’s Steak House is an added bonus to a pretty terrific dinner. Just like the Haunted Mansion attraction at Disney World, it’s a thrill you won’t want to miss. In fact, some folks say the two-story lobby at Bern’s with its red velvet walls, gothic sconces and period portraiture reminds them of that, without the glass of Bordeaux, of course.