Enduring Appeal: Author Tori Whitaker returns to Bern’s Steak House

Thirty years after her first visit, a novelist finds Tampa’s legendary culinary institution wonderfully unchanged
445

 

Bern’s Steak House

Illustration by Harry Tennant

My husband and I headed to Florida for what we affectionately called our “we’re going to get pregnant with our second child” trip. I was 22 in that spring of ’81, and we drove from Indiana while Mamaw kept our son.

At an affordable Clearwater Beach hotel, we slept in. We stood in the sand, holding hands as water splashed our knees. In St. Pete, we toured a sailing ship from the Marlon Brando movie Mutiny on the Bounty. And we spent a day at Disney in Orlando. For our last night, we’d saved up to splurge—no more fast food.

On that starry evening with a bright full moon, I wore a powder-blue outfit I’d made myself, a peasant-style skirt with a top that fell off my shoulders. John sported a suit and tie. As we pulled into Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, the lights and cars and overhang felt like a Hollywood red carpet scene to me. This was my first time to valet park.

Then we entered the dimly lit lobby with walls of crimson. Old-world portraits in gilded frames filled the walls. Sconces glowed with small orbs on ornate curved branches. Finely dressed people with tasteful perfumes mingled. This was the fanciest restaurant I’d ever seen—more so than the Italian place I’d visited as a girl on a trip to Chicago. (“Look,” I’d whispered to Mom, “they put the sauce on top of my ravioli, not all mixed in like Chef Boyardee.”)

The maître d’ led us past intimate dining rooms, each with its own themed decor. Once seated in the Bronze Room—where wall medallions featured figures from centuries past—we felt like a prince and princess, so attentive was our server, dressed in crisp black and white. He presented a wine list with a hard cover like a book; an inch thick, it was among the world’s largest. But I ordered my favorite drink: a strawberry daiquiri. John and I shared something called chateaubriand for two. The steak came with French onion soup, salad (with more dressing options than I knew existed), and garlic toasts, potatoes, and vegetables, too.

This wasn’t merely an elegant dinner. This was a sumptuous feast.

Three decades later, business called me to Tampa, and John came along. By then, we’d moved to Atlanta, advanced in our careers, and both of our sons had left home. We’d never forgotten Bern’s, though.

We asked ourselves: After staying in castles in Ireland and dining on the French Riviera, would Bern’s still blow us away?

We stepped into Bern’s interior that glowed the warmest red. Our eyes locked. Oh yeah. It hadn’t changed.

This time, we sipped cocktails crafted with fine bourbon. We ordered a bottle of Bordeaux from the wine cellar. We shared chilled shrimp and sizzling filets mignons. After dinner, our server escorted us upstairs to the dessert room, and we cozied up in one of the dozens of private walled booths made of wine casks and glass. Inside, we got to choose our own music: Mozart and soft jazz. Then we flipped through the bound dessert list and lost ourselves in butterscotch and chocolate and flaming dessert fantasies.

I’ve been told, “You can never go back.” But at Bern’s, I say, you can.

________________________________________________________

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Southbound.

TORI WHITAKER is the author of two books of historical fiction. She’s a graduate of Indiana University and an alum of the Yale Writers’ Workshop. Whitaker recently retired from a national law firm, where she served as chief marketing officer. Her bestselling debut novel, Millicent Glenn’s Last Wish, was published when she was almost 62. She and her husband of 45 years live near Atlanta, close to their sons and grandchildren.

Advertisement