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Eat, Drink, Sleep

Meryle Evans - April 2014

Tampa, Florida—For over half a century Tampa has been a mecca for wine connoisseurs and carnivores who flock to Bern’s Steak House to savor rare vintages from the world’s largest wine cellar in a restaurant (500,000 bottles), dine on dry-aged strip sirloin, and indulge their inner child in a dedicated dessert room.

Now, with no worries about drinking and driving, they can stroll across the street for a good night’s sleep at the brand-new food and wine focused Epicurean Hotel that opened last December. Built by David Laxer, son of steak house founder Bern Laxer, in partnership with Tampa-based Mainsail Lodging and Development Group and a member of the Marriott International Autograph Collection, the 137 room, $35 million project, located in the city’s own trendy SoHo (South Howard Avenue), beckons both out-of-towners and area residents.

The Epicurean projects a gastronomic adventure park ambience that starts with check-in at a reception desk made of wine crates. Guests can sign up for cooking classes and wine tastings in the Viking-equipped 40 seat amphitheater, browse old cookbooks in the lounge, dine at the 80 seat Élevage Restaurant, stock up at the on-site Bern’s wine and pastry shops, relax with a chocolate softening mask at the Evanageline spa, and have a nightcap at Edge, the rooftop bar.

Throughout the hotel, local means decor from area vendors as well as farm-fresh food. Staff wardrobes were assembled by a popular store, Urban Body; Rustic Steel Creation’s repurposed wooden doors have whimsical Alice in Wonderland–size kitchen utensil handles, and St. Pete Bikes in nearby St. Petersburg provided bicycles for peddling along Tampa Bay, a few blocks from the hotel. Cigar City Brewing’s craft beers are on tap, and Uriah’s Urban Farm created a vertical indoor herb garden adjacent to the restaurant for executive chef Chad Johnson.

Johnson has been sourcing local food for a decade as executive chef at SideBerns, a sibling restaurant down the block that offers a contemporary new American menu. “We’re not trying to re-create another Bern’s,” he explains. “At the Epicurean, it’s fine dining, but casual, nostalgia—meets–nouveau cuisine, with a reasonable wine list.”

Given carte blanche to design the hotel kitchen, Johnson considered installing a large glass see-through window, but realized he needed the wall for workspace. The solution? Wide doors that swing open 180 degrees and are left open so guests can stop by.

“I was nervous at first,” Johnson admits, “because kitchens can be so raucous, but now instead of the chef coming out to the table, we just tell the waitstaff to say, ‘Would you like to come back and see the kitchen and meet the chef?’ and they love it.”

Chefs from other local restaurants jumped at the chance to inspect the kitchen during a reception in January, part of a gala post-opening weekend to welcome local dignitaries and culinary aficionados with Norman Van Aken, founding father of New World Cuisine, as a special guest. For the over 600 reception attendees on Friday evening, Johnson’s team set up dining and drinking stations throughout the hotel, from poolside duck teriyaki to barbecued gulf oysters in the kitchen. The party wound down at the Epicurean patisserie, Chocolate Pi, for Champagne toasts and executive pastry chef Kim Yelvington’s delectable mini cupcakes, macarons, and chocolates.

By Saturday morning, serious enophiles were in the Epicurean Theatre for wine tastings and seminars.

“My father created Bern’s for people to enjoy excellent food and wine,” says David Laxer, “and Epicurean Hotel is going to be an extension of that. This is going to be a place like nowhere else.”