It’s not often that the New York Times obituary page references one of Tampa’s own, let alone prominently. But such was the case recently because such was the reputation of Bern Laxer, creator of Bern’s Steak House.
Before there were Super Bowls and amenities dubbed “world class,” there was Bern’s. Since the 1950s, Tampa has basked in its reflected glory. Bern’s is “one of the country’s more unusual and most popular restaurants,” understated the Times’ obit.
And not unlike his restaurant, Laxer was also one of a kind. He was as eccentric as he was exacting.
His passing jogged my memory to when I first met him. I was doing a profile piece for the Tampa Bay Business Journal . The 1981 interview was at 10 p.m. Any earlier, he had made abundantly clear, would have conflicted with his hands-on approach to running his restaurant the way it should be run.
Personally, Laxer was as low key as his restaurant was high profile; as nondescript looking as it was over-decorated in that SoHo-meets-the-Renaissance motif. With a cluster of keys hitched to his green Bermuda shorts, the wiry restaurateur looked like some culinary custodian.
After a tour of the huge, spotless kitchen and a peek inside the cavernous wine cellar, we adjourned to his second-floor office — a cramped, cluttered cubicle. The focal point was his paper-strewn desk where nine television monitors were mounted, affording various vantage points of the kitchen. Between books, within nooks, under piles and atop heaps were hints of the myriad awards, local and national, that Bern’s had won through the years. None were on display.
I inquired about the seeming insouciance. Most folks can’t get their chamber of commerce appreciation plaques hung quickly enough, let alone testimonials to being the best in their field.
Laxer’s pithy answer spoke volumes. “They really don’t mean a damn thing to me,” he said. “I don’t want to be looking back just because I won an award. That makes me a big shot. I want to be better than that. I want to pretend that I haven’t won any awards. So I can be a better restaurant.”
As a result, Laxer’s legacy now transcends a restaurant that catered to VIP palates and helped put Tampa on the map — and globe. By his work ethic and attention to detail, Bern Laxer also served up food for thought — and what it meant to be “world class.”