Even so, I didn’t return from my fact-finding missions without some souvenirs: recommendations for where to eat well before, during and after the keynote and acceptance speeches. No matter your political persuasion, you should be able to rally around these nominations.
Bern’s Steakhouse is to Tampa what the Supreme Court is to Washington: an institution. Since 1956, it has been a mecca for diners who appreciate the mineral tang of a dry-aged cut of beef washed back with a great wine — in some cases, breathtaking vino. Founder Bern Laxer began collecting grape juice early in his career; some of his discerning purchases remain on display in the restaurant’s 500,000-plus-bottle wine cellar and date to fabled Burgundies of the ’40s and ’50s. The oldest bottle in the bunch is an 1820 port. I counted myself fortunate to have sipped from a flask of the comparatively youthful Malmsey Madeira, circa 1907, during an after-dinner tour of the kitchen and wine cellar that is every bit as engaging as eating in one of Bern’s seven ground-floor dining rooms.
The menu is a beef eater’s fantasy. Fifteen cuts of prime Midwestern meat and dozens of ways to prepare them! If it’s offered, order the truly special “special chateaubriand.” Dry-aged in-house for up to eight weeks, the succulent cut of tenderloin (out of the short loin) is meat for the memory books. Like all the entrees, it comes with a parade of sideshows: soup (lobster bisque is worth an upgrade from French onion), salad, fully loaded potato and two other vegetables.
The (optional) behind-the-scenes strolls reveal how much thought goes into the show. Chef de cuisine Habteab Hamde, a 16-year Bern’s veteran, entrusts only four of his 80 kitchen workers with staffing the massive charcoal grill, which can accommodate 200 steaks at once. Bern’s is big enough, and busy enough, to maintain its own laundry facilities — and one person whose sole task is to slice and bread onions. In the founder’s era, the legendary wine list came with a chain attached to the table to keep it from becoming an expensive “souvenir”; these days, the spiral-bound list, updated yearly, can be yours for $25.
Laxer died a decade ago, at 78. His son, David, took over the reins in 1996 and runs the attraction in the visionary’s exacting fashion. No two waiters can use the same name, shares my expert server “Lee,” who later confides that his birth name is Mark. (The veteran waiter wears a silver tie, designating his senior status; captains are identified by their gold ties; newbies wear red.)