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Food & Dining

Houck: Tampa area restaurant giants keep earning respect

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Published:   |   Updated: July 22, 2013 at 08:16 AM

There is a sign inside Bern's Steak House mounted on the shiny white tile above the exit doorway from the kitchen. In a curlicue black script on a clean white background, it asks for "Quiet."

The subtle message to the kitchen: Do what you do with precision and control. A noisy kitchen is an inefficient kitchen, and an inefficient kitchen is unprofessional. If the guests in the dining room can hear you, then you're doing it wrong.

In effect, the sign speaks for the collective Bern's empire. From the steak house to the Harry Waugh dessert room, to the wine shop to SideBern's, The various entities do what they do with unmatched skill and also a quiet confidence that lets the work speak for itself.

That isn't to say the components don't have their gaudy moments. Any restaurant that puts a Bible-thick wine list on the table and turns giant casks into dessert tables knows how to put on a show. Keep a 3-liter torpedo of 1947 Château Latour Pauillac in-house and someone is bound to notice.

If you've ever been to Bern's Winefest, you know that subtlety and minimalism is nowhere to be found. And the Epicurean hotel, which is being built across Howard Avenue from the steak house, promises to add another wing onto the legacy.

More than five decades after opening, Bern's continues to rake in the accolades.

Two weeks ago, the Daily Meal website said it was the No. 2 steak house in the country, noting the 20 kinds of caviar, two preparations of foie gras, two kinds of steak tartare (one with truffles), oysters three ways, 16 domestic and imported cheeses, nearly 50 desserts and a list of about 7,000 wines.

"Bern's is about wonderful excess," editorial director Coleman Andrews wrote. "Come hungry."

Two days later, Wine Enthusiast named it among the top 100 wine restaurants in the country. When asked which dish would start a riot if it was taken off the menu, senior sommelier Eric Renaud replied, "Dry aged steak"

Yeah, but it would be a delicious riot.

These loving words from Daily Meal and Wine Enthusiast need no enhancement from me. But they do need amplification.

Because I get the growing sense that some in Tampa take the place for granted.

A handful of times each year, someone asks me what I think of the place. Before I say anything, they volunteer something about how the restaurant failed to live up to their expectations. Invariably the criticisms come down to nitpicky details that would likely happen only once, if ever. Sort of like complaining about too many pebbles at the Grand Canyon.

We do that a lot, you know. We look at the battleship places like Bern's and The Columbia and declare them passe. We pull up to the giant pink seashell called the Don CeSar Resort and yawn, We walk through the ornate Vinoy Resort and think, "Meh."

It's easy to dismiss them. They've been around forever, the thinking goes. They're perpetual-motion machines. They'll be serving customers long after we're dust. They can withstand our scorn.

Except that's not true.

The Columbia that customers enjoy today at seven locations experienced several cyclical bumpy patches in its 108-year history.

The Jazz Age playground that once was the Don CeSar closed in 1928 after the death of its founder, less than 15 years after it opened. It didn't become a plush seaside resort again until 1973.

The Vinoy opened on New Year's Eve in 1925 at the end of Florida's boom times. But by the 1960s, a lack of maintenance and air conditioning diminished its splendor. By the 1970s, it was operating as a $7-a-night boarding house. From 1974 until 1993, it remained closed, At one point, demolition was considered. After a protective historic designation and a $93 million renovation, the Vinoy became a jewel that led downtown St. Petersburg's waterfront revival.

My point: Nothing is permanent, especially in the hospitality industry.

The great ones, though, prolong their greatness by continuing to innovate and push for excellence.

It's why The Columbia's Richard Gonzmart is building the Ulele restaurant to offer native cuisine along the Hillsborough River at the former Tampa Water Works. "This is our legacy to the next generation," he said recently.

It's why Executive Chef Kenny Hunsberger remade Mauritana Grill into a stellar dining experience and tweaked the rest of the Don CeSar's food operations to make the resort more relevant to the dining scene on St. Pete Beach.

It's why the Vinoy transformed its lobby to offer sleek new bars and stylish decor. It's why Executive Chef Mark Heimann constantly reinvents his menus at the resort's outstanding Marchand's restaurant to emphasize the seasonality of local ingredients.

That's the thing about battleships. Even when they appear to be standing still, they're still moving forward.

Quietly so, but still forward.

jhouck@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7324

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