Vail Wine Ink column: Wine, steak and refuge at the Epicurean in Tampa
January 18, 2017
When you think of a wine destination, places such as Burgundy or the Barossa Valley come to mind. But for the wine cognoscenti, there is a place in Central Florida that is a must-visit on the wine road.
"What?" you ask. "Florida? Does Disney have a virtual vineyard? Is Universal City launching a 'Be the blend!' interactive experience?" Hardly.
No, for those who know wine, the place to go is Bern's Steak House, not far from the Bay in Tampa, yes, Florida. Bern's houses what is touted as one of the world's largest and most comprehensive wine cellars. It claims to offer 6,500 different wines and it cellars and stores a collection that ranges from 500,000 to 600,000 bottles. Each is listed in a book bigger than the original Gutenberg Bible (dinner guests receive a smaller, edited version) and is stored in one of four temperature-controlled warehouses.
In 2016, the James Beard Awards honored Bern's Steak House as having America's most "outstanding wine program." It is an honor that the place last received in 1992.
But the best news for gourmands and wine lovers is that one can dine and imbibe at Bern's, pairing the world's best wines with epic steaks, and then simply walk across South Howard Avenue to the Epicurean Hotel and sleep it off in comfort.
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That's right, steps away from the iconic steakhouse is a one-of-a-kind, contemporary hotel, designed with the same culinary ethos as Bern's to meet the travel needs of the culinary voyager. The Epicurean, which opened in 2013, is a collaboration between the Laxner family, which owns Bern's, and a high-end Florida hotel developer, Mainsail Lodging and Development. It operates under the Autograph Collection brand of Marriott and is totally committed to creating a space devoted to the pleasures of food and wine.
"We have 137 rooms and six culinary or wine outlets on-property," said Tom Haines, the Epicurean's general manager, when talking about the layout of the hotel. "Every hotel has food and beverage, but nobody that we know of has built a hotel around the food and beverage program."
Indeed, when you first walk into the Epicurean, you know you are in a different kind of hotel. The check-in desk sits atop wine racks filled with fine wines. The walls of the reception area are covered with the side panels of wine crates from the world's most esteemed wine chateaus and estates. Instead of a lobby store selling assorted sundries, there is a world-class wine shop, Bern's Fine Wine and Spirits, that is worth an hour of any wine lover's time.
As you walk to the elevators, you pass an open Kitchen Theatre, where top chefs offer cooking demonstrations and classes. Once in your room, there are five half-bottle varietals, ranging from Rombauer Chardonnay to Justin Cabernet, for your sipping pleasure. Schedule a massage in the Spa Evangeline, and your wine-themed rub down will be administered in a room soundproofed by 20,000 corks from wines that once enchanted Bern's customers.
There is a restaurant, Elevage, under the auspices of chef Chad Johnson, a Beard-nominated chef who has a decade and a half of experience with Bern's and their other local eatery, Haven. Johnson is considered the culinary visionary who has overseen the creative development of the property. A rooftop bar, Edge, with a view of Tampa, and French patisserie, Chocolate Pi, round out the rides … er … culinary outlets.
"When we first started to concept this property, we thought a lot about our regular local guests," Johnson said. "We wanted to create a space where locals could come and get a quality experience and still feel comfortable in blue jeans. If we made them comfortable, we were sure our hotel guests would also be comfortable."
"When a hotel opens and builds a restaurant, you find that guests come in and ask 'what's the great locals' spot?' and the hotel restaraunt sits empty," Haines said. "We wanted to build a great locals' spot that hotel guests would want to stay and eat in."
While a boutique property, the connection with Marriot has established an upscale business clientele. But both Johnson and Haines are most pleased with the eclectic profile of the guests.
"If you are in the trade or significantly involved in food and wine, this is where you stay," Haines said. "We also get a significant number of weddings and guests who come for our 'steak-cation' packages that include a reservation at Bern's."
A tough ticket.
Leave Disney World to the kids. If you are planning a sojourn to Florida, then the Epicurean is this wine lover's choice.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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