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    Bern Laxer 1923-2002:

    He perfected fine dining in Tampa

    Bern's Steak House was built with patience, consistency and dedication to customers.

    By CRAIG BASSE and SUSAN THURSTON
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 2, 2002


    photo
    [Times files: 1982]
    Mr. Laxer reinvested the money he made at Bern's in wine and the business.
    TAMPA -- Bern Laxer, founder and longtime owner of the landmark Bern's Steak House, died Saturday (Aug. 31, 2002) after a long illness. He was 78.

    Known as a perfectionist, Mr. Laxer opened Bern's in the mid 1950s and built its reputation on aged beef served with organically grown vegetables and fine wine from his internationally renowned collection.

    Over the years, the restaurant won numerous awards and played host to dignitaries and celebrities. President Bush dined there last year with his brother, Jeb.

    "You can go across the world -- Paris, Jamaica, California, New York -- and mention Bern's and people know it," said executive chef Jeannie Pierola, who considered Mr. Laxer her mentor. "It's a timeless experience that endures."

    Mr. Laxer died of stroke complications and organ failure. He had suffered serious injuries in a car crash in 1993 and never fully recovered.

    His son, David, then 28, was thrust into the business and has run it ever since. On Sunday, he credited his father with teaching him about patience, consistency and dedication to customers.

    "He built it from nothing and made it what it is today," he said. "We're all going to miss him."

    Known as a bright and friendly man, Mr. Laxer delighted in playing the role of being, perhaps, Tampa's most famous restaurateur.

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    "It's still a lot of fun for me," he said in 1982. "Everything I do is because of the fun of it. I don't do it for the money."

    For many years he could be found in Bermuda shorts and a baggy shirt, supervising the kitchen and cooking steaks. He often stayed at the restaurant on South Howard Avenue until 4:30 a.m., or later.

    "It's not like the child who you can let go by saying, 'You're lovely and you're gone,' " he once said. "This place needs my constant attention."

    Although a stickler for quality, Mr. Laxer led a simple life. The money he made, he reinvested in wine and the business. The only time he traveled was to buy wine.

    "There was no flash," said David Mela of Vintage Wine Cellars in Tampa, whose father befriended Mr. Laxer 40 years ago. "There were no Jaguars. No boats. No beach house."

    The son of Jewish refugees who fled to this country to escape the Nazis, Bernard Laxer was born on the Lower East Side of New York City and grew in the Bronx. He served in the military during World War II and graduated from New York University with a degree in advertising.

    He and his wife, Gertrude, also an advertising graduate, married in 1950 and moved to Florida. He took a job as head of Garden Notes, a newsletter with 3,400 subscribers. In less than three years, he built the circulation to 13,000.

    Fremac's, a men's store, hired him to produce ads for 18 stores. For a year he did both jobs. Eventually, he and his wife started thinking about going into business for themselves.

    "As an advertising man I was telling others how to be a success," he said. "And we thought, if we're so smarty-pants, why don't we do it?"

    With $1,500 they had saved for a home, he and his wife bought the Gator Juice Bar in downtown Tampa in 1953. Renamed Bern and Gert's Little Midway, the breakfast and lunch stand soon turned a profit as Mr. Laxer made it into something special.

    "Our food was great," he said, "and I don't use words like that about my food. We had fresh breads and fresh-squeezed juices."

    He also offered 37 kinds of jams, jellies and preserves with breakfast. To keep track of his customers' preferences, he posted a list on the back of the kitchen door.

    A squabble with the landlord over rent sent Mr. Laxer and his wife in 1956 to a new place, the Beer Haven on Howard Avenue, the present site of Bern's.

    Mr. Laxer considered turning the bar into a soft-serve ice cream business but couldn't find a bank willing to lend money for what was seen as an uncertain venture.

    So Mr. Laxer turned to steaks, and made sure the restaurant was a unique experience. The huge menu offers three pages of steak choices -- 16 cuts of steak and 50 ways to prepare them.

    Three 1,200-gallon tanks in the kitchen each hold 650 pounds of live fish. At least 20 kinds of caviar are available. The 179-page wine list features 6,500 labels. Diners are offered behind-the-scene tours of the kitchen and wine cellar.

    He built the famous Harry Waugh Dessert Room in 1978. The wine collection, with more than 400,000 bottles, is one of the largest in the world.

    Tampa Mayor Dick Greco said Mr. Laxer and his wife made Tampa a destination for fine dining and premier wines. In the last month, he has gone to Bern's three or four times with out-of-town guests eager to try the thick steaks and delectable desserts.

    "Just about everybody who ever comes to Tampa wants to eat there," he said.

    In addition to his wife, Mr. Laxer is survived by his son, David, and his wife Christina; a daughter, Julia Laxer of Dallas; and two grandchildren.

    A memorial service will be held at 12:15 p.m. Tuesday at Schaarai Zedek, 3303 W Swann Ave. in Tampa. Contributions can be made to a trust fund to be set up in his name.

    Marsicano -- B. Marion Reed -- Stowers Funeral Home is handling the arrangements.

    Bern's Steak House will be closed today as scheduled because of Labor Day. As usual, the restaurant was packed on Sunday. Most did not know of Mr. Laxer's death.

    Scott Maloney of Palmetto heard about it from some regulars at the bar. A longtime regular, he never met Mr. Laxer, but knew his reputation and loved the food, wine and service.

    "I've always found it to be above and beyond," he said. "It's a special place."

    -- Staff writer Chris Sherman contributed to this report. Some information in this obituary came from Times files and from the New York Times.

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