The exterior of Bern’s Steak House gives little away. A bland, white, two-storey building tucked in a semi-residential neighbourhood of Tampa, Florida, within spitting distance of a noisy expressway, it has the look of a place in which you will get a decent plate of food, filling but not fancy.
Step inside, through the plush, womb-like reception area, to a door adjacent to the kitchen, and the veil of respectable mediocrity is whipped away. As that door opens a smell wafts out, a confection of mould, damp paper and styrofoam. The air is cool (a crisp 10˚C with 75% humidity, I later learn). Ahead of me are bottles upon tens of thousands of bottles of wine, stacked from floor to ceiling. There are reds and whites from every major wine-growing region in the world and double magnums, resting on their own boxes like prized trophies. Some vintages, bottled decades ago, have been wrapped in plastic to keep their labels intact. Others nestle in their crates or crowd onto shelves.
Eric Renaud, Bern’s wine director, turns with a smile: “We have it all,” he says. “We can make everyone happy.”
For the oenophile, Bern’s is one small step below heaven. With more than 500,000 bottles in its cellars, it has the largest-known private wine collection kept by a restaurant. But it’s not just about quantity: Bern’s also stands apart from its peers in its list of aged wines that can’t be found elsewhere.
Its collection was built up, one case at a time, by the late Bern Laxer, the father of current owner David Laxer. The son of a Polish factory worker, Laxer left New York for Tampa with his wife Gert, and the dream of opening their own restaurant.
Bern’s was launched in 1956. Having to be canny about what wines he bought, Laxer consulted experts, who encouraged him to explore the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy and the emerging vineyards in California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys. He soon got the appetite to seek out treasures, buying wines that are rarely seen today, such as the 1961 Chateau Verdignan from Bordeaux.
Laxer wanted only the best. His steaks were the finest cuts. His waiters underwent months of training. Long before chefs turned farm-to-table cuisine into a religion, he set up an organic farm to grow his vegetables.
But the wines stole the show. By his retirement in 1996, the wine list was 2,500 pages long. David Laxer, working alongside Renaud, a former fighter-jet mechanic, has slimmed it down somewhat: today’s list stretches to around 180 pages, which feature some 6,500 different labels.
French wine makes up the greater part of the list; there are more than two dozen vintages of Mouton Rothschild, going back to 1907. New World wine is well represented, as is the stronger stuff; Armagnac, Cognac and port, a Taylor-Fladgate Scion Tawny Port from grapes harvested in 1855, is on the menu at $450 (£334) for a swallow (1.5 ounces).
It is these rare and great wines that lure connoisseurs to Tampa in their private-jet loads. Patrick Stella, the founder of WineCredit, frequently flies from New York to eat and drink at Bern’s. The bill for six sometimes tops $10,000. For Stella, it is worth it. “Bern’s is the only place left in the world to taste such a deep selection of old wines from all different regions.”
Wine has long been a status symbol and an investment as well as a pleasure: according to a report by Bain, in 2016 worldwide sales of fine wine and spirits grew by 4%. That Bern’s has remained under the radar is extraordinary – but may soon change. Also in 2016 it won the Outstanding (US) Wine Programme award in the culinary equivalent of the Oscars.
Renaud unlocks the door to the storage facility outside. We walk between shelves of boxes, some warped by age, humidity or the weight of bottles. He points out thousands of bottles of last-of-their-kind wines. He’s still finding hidden gems in the cellar; in 2010, he discovered a double magnum of a 1947 Chateau Latour, now on the wine list at $30,000.
That evening I settle into the bar. The vast lists are chained to tables to stop people stealing them. In the restaurant, 600 diners are tucking into steaks. I start with a 1975 Souverain Zinfadel, dense, smoky and fruity, then move on to a 1978 Aujoux Beaujolais; it tastes mild and has a Cognac-like texture.
As I leave, I wonder for how long customers will be able to drink a mind-blowing Domaine de la Romanée-Conti before it runs out. Renaud says that, owing to the price of fine wines today, the restaurant is buying a few bottles of some vintages instead of dozens of cases as Laxer did. Still, he notes, Bern’s has oceans of wine yet to be poured.