Quite a few people in this community would place Bern Laxer in the gallery of most unforgettable characters they have met. Thousands more would place his creation, Bern's Steak House, among the most unforgettable restaurants they have visited. It is a 300-seat, rococco canvas that Laxer and his wife, Gert, use to display steaks, orginal recipies, their home-grown vegetables and the world's most extensive wine list.
The list, in reality a 3 1/2-inch thick, 2,500-page volume chained to a shelf beside each table, could well be mentioned first. This book - and the wine behind it - has attracted oenophilies from around the world to Tampa, a most unlikely destination. Obtaining and maintaining the collection has taken a great deal of Laxer's energy. Updating the book pushed him into the printing business. But the restaurant came first and the wines, however important, are only symbols of an unusual, highly idiosyncratic personality.
Despite fast food franchises, the restaurant industry remains a highly individualisitc field. The character of memorable restaurants is shaped by the owner's personality and instincts, be he a chef, a manager or a dilettante who has purchased a hobby. Laxer has been, and is, all three.
No chef's outfit or fancy suit for him, however. Almost invariably dressed in a white T-shirt and shorts, pencil-thin with a hawk-like nose dominating an El Greco face and deep tan. Laxer appears on first glance to be a character actor fresh from a Japanese prison camp in some World War II movie. He rarely leaves Tampa, spending much of the day in an office on the 3 1/2-acre farm he operates on the outskirts of the city, and each evening in the kitchen of the restaurant.
Wherever he is, Bern Laxer talks. He is a compulsive talker and a natural proselytizer. His passion for wine collecting is no greater than his passion for organic farming and he will review his unsucessful scheme to buy the St. Petersburg Compost Plant for Tampa, or his collection of 15 tractors as exhaustively as he does the storage of his wines. He is currently collecting food and wine books and plans to sell them in an addition to the restaurant that is under construction. The addition will also contain more wine storage, a room dedicated to desserts, a room dedicated to Port and a Chinese kitchen. This last is intended primarily to give Laxer more scope in cooking the vegetables grown on his farm.
Though construction is underway ("Do you know another restaurant that owns a jackhammer?" Laxer asks), just how everything will fit together is unsettled. "I haven't figured how to do it."
Laxer said, unperturbed. "We just try to live a little day by day."
To him, " a restaurant is not a building, it's a group of people. Our people are trained. I trust them. But I'm in the kitchen every night. When I'm there it's different." The problems presented by a staff of more than 150 and a seven-day-a-week operation (from 5 p.m. to midnight) haven't dulled his enthusiasm. He is given to saying, in relation to the farm or his cooking experiments, "there's so much to do, I can't keep up with it," but when pressed whether the work still brings him pleasure, he nods. "Yeah," he said, "the way I run it, I have a lot fun."
Evidently the Laxers made it fun, even in the beginning. They migrated from New York City in 1950. Laxer tried advertising for three years before they opened a small place called Beer Haven. He was in the kitchem; his wife worked the front room. Eventually they were able to hire a dish washer. It was very much an economy class eatery.
"That's a hard-working, intense person," Laxer said, smiling fondly at his wife. "Gert served everything and knew before the regular customers could order what they wanted. She gave everybody names. We knew who our customers were and catered to them as individual people. We didn't do anything fancy at first, but we had a 30-cent breakfast that included any preserve you could name.
"We learned the shortcuts, but we never used 'em. Even then we would go to extremes to do what we wanted to do. I didn't know anything about steak, but I would test two and take the best. I learned to buy utility rib eyes and strips with the heaviest marbling. I'd age them and marinate them with oil and various herbs and spices. I kept records. Then we moved up to commercial grade. Everything else was the best we could get. The vegetables were always fresh. Traveling salesmen loved them. They were tired of nothing but meat and potatoes."
Success led them to a new location in 1956, away from the business district at 1208 S. Howard St. There they have stayed and, as the Bible puts it, multiplied. When they moved into the big leagues of steakdom and first began serving choice beef at higher prices, business suffered. But it recovered, they began the farm and Laxer developed a taste for wine. Gert Laxer had stayed active in the business while raising two children. She oversees the books and the buying (except wine).
Laxer claims that wine and liquor sales now support his high food costs. The restaurant is in the expensive category, but clearly delivers value for money in ingredients. Under the motto Laxer created, "art in steaks," the menu contains a message titled "We do things different here." It is a list of 26 steps involving extra expense or hand-crafting.
"There's nothing I ever do because I want to make a profit," Laxer says with the sincerity of a zealot. "I'm not rich. We've never made money, ever. We've always been cash poor." Of course this ignores the value of the restaurant, its antiques and its wines, but it underlines the obvious: Bern Laxer's values are different.
The menue is no less unusual. The steaks are grouped in six categories: filet mignon, Chateaubriand, strip sirloin, Delmonico, T-bone and porter-house. each cut is explained and offered up in various thicknesses and weights in a chart of more than 50 choices, most available in either prime or choice. There is no disappointment. The meat is excellent, the cooking precise. But a recent dinner some of the features Laxer dotes on, the vegetables, onion soup and steak tartare were adequate but not exciting. They failed to measure up in taste to the effort that went into their preparation. The vegetable of the day - eggplant - had been deep fried, so a batter masked its organic freshness.
Unless one comes at an off-hour there is a wait at Bern's, often a long one. He hopes to ease that problem by encouraging some customers to finish their meals in the new dessert room. There are complaints, too, that the wine list does not live up to its promise; that many of the bottles on its pages are unavailable.
Laxer explained that it contains 6,000 listings, that wines do run out, that he now puts the date of each printing in the back. "We try to keep current," he said. "We update and cross wines off every week and a lot of wine we've run out of on purpose (because he does not condone the price of recent vintages of the wine). It is embarrassing when a wine runs out. But book weighs almost 4 1/2 pounds now and it is taking us longer to update it and change the page numbers. We are redoing the French section for the upcoming issue, but it will be nearly a year since the last one."
There are wines there, though, in a cellar and in nearby warehouses. The greatest wines of France, from this century and back into the 1840s, are there. California is well represented as well. The bulk of the wines are red, though the demand for white wine has been growing here as elsewhere. Laxer refuses to estimate the value of his collection and hesitates even to disclose its size. But he is sure of its primacy. "I've heard "21' (the New York City restaurant) claims to have 5,000 cases," he said, musing about other large restaurant wine cellars. "I have more than that in my small warehouse."
The price he will pay for wine (many of his purchases have been made at auction) is determined by "a consideration of what I can sell it for. Basically, I can't survive with material that I cannot sell. My bread and butter is the $8 bottle of wine and you can find plenty of wine for $5.50, but I try to hid them. You don't have to read it all. There are four pages at the beginning (a summary) with plenty of options."
his buying, especially of French wines from the 1970 vintage onward, has slowed down.He thinks prices have gone too high and is one of the few in the field who predicts they will come down.
Laxer claims some bad bottles have come into his warehouses, but few if any have gone bad in the cooled and moisture-controlled facilities he has built. That will change, however, and - having obtained a retail license - he plans to sell some wine for drinking or for vinegar in the new facility.
But being Bern Laxer, he doesn't intend to become an ordinary retailer. The books he is collecting so ardently, the wines and otehr item s he plans to put in a general store setting he thinks he will call "The Private World of Bern Laxer" will be available only to his restaurant customers. There is no storefront planned and no street entrance.
"I ain't interested in anybody who doesn't come to my restaurant," he saidwith finality. "I don't want to become a tourist place."