Bristol and the Berni Inns

The Llandoger Trow in Bristol c.1973.

The Berni Inn chain is fascinating for various reasons, not least because it originated here in Bristol.

This is some­thing that only real­ly dawned on us recent­ly as, tak­ing an inter­est in the his­to­ry of Bris­tol pubs as we do, we kept com­ing across ref­er­ences to Berni Inns in old guide­books and local his­to­ries:

HOLE IN THE WALL
Free House *** F
Queen Square
A Berni Inn, but don’t be putt off. Just make for the back bar, The Tav­ern Pub­lic. Here find beau­ti­ful­ly served Wad­worth 6X (yes, in a Berni) and Wor­thing­ton E in peak con­di­tion – both on hand­pumps. Sand­wich­es at rea­son­able prices also avail­able. Quite small friend­ly bar with com­fort­able seats, thick car­pet and jovial old locals.

Inso­far as we were much aware of Berni Inns at all, this kind of thing was not what we had imag­ined. For decades they were the punch­line to jokes about the tack­i­ness of aspi­ra­tional lifestyles in post-war Britain, famous for bring­ing prawn cock­tail and black for­est gateau to the mass­es. For exam­ple, here’s a song from Vic­to­ria Wood’s 2011 musi­cal That Day We Sang which hits all the famil­iar ref­er­ences:

There are no short­age of arti­cles sum­maris­ing the his­to­ry of the Berni Inn chain but – this one by Bris­tol-based writer Eugene Byrne is good, for exam­ple. The sto­ry is also cov­ered, with some love­ly archive footage, in this 2015 edi­tion of the BBC’s Timeshift.

To save you a click, though, here’s a pre­cis, based on Mr Byrne’s piece, the obit­u­ar­ies of Aldo and Frank Berni in the Guardian for 17/10/1997 and 01/08/2000 respec­tive­ly, and var­i­ous oth­er sources.

Frank Berni was born in Bar­di near Par­ma in Italy in 1903. He was brought up pri­mar­i­ly by his moth­er because his father was abroad in South Wales run­ning tem­per­ance bars. When he came of age, Frank joined his father in the fam­i­ly busi­ness in the UK. He was soon joined by his broth­ers, Aldo, born 1909, and Car­lo.

Frank and Aldo Berni.
Frank and Aldo Berni from Hotel and Cater­ing Review, March 1968, via Face­book.

In 1929, Aldo and Frank used a £300 inher­i­tance from their moth­er to buy a cafe in High Street, Exeter, which was suc­cess­ful enough to fund expan­sion into Ply­mouth and Bris­tol.

Dur­ing World War II Frank and Car­lo were interned as ‘ene­my aliens’ while Aldo, who had a British pass­port, was at first called up, and then assigned to Home Front work because of his poor health.

After World War II Frank and Aldo acquired Hort’s, an upmar­ket cock­tail bar and restau­rant in Bris­tol. Tom Jaine sug­gests in his obit­u­ary of Frank Berni that they might have got the mon­ey to fund this bold move from repa­ra­tion pay­ments for Blitz dam­age to their pre-war prop­er­ties which just hap­pened to be in the most heav­i­ly bombed cities in the West Coun­try.

Like motel entre­pre­neur Gra­ham Lyon the Ber­nis sensed that there were inter­est­ing things going on in Amer­i­ca that British peo­ple, exhaust­ed and bored by wartime aus­ter­i­ty, might be ready to wel­come.

Frank Berni vis­it­ed the US in the ear­ly 1950s and came away inspired by Amer­i­can steak bars which made mon­ey by care­ful­ly con­trol­ling mar­gins while main­tain­ing the appear­ance of gen­eros­i­ty and good val­ue. He was also impressed by the con­sis­ten­cy of chain restau­rants which were capa­ble of serv­ing iden­ti­cal steak meals in iden­ti­cal sur­round­ings any­where in the US.

When meat rationing end­ed in Britain in 1954, they pounced, tak­ing on The Rum­mer, a his­toric pub in cen­tral Bris­tol.

Berni Inns logo, 1964.

In a short essay for The 60s in Bris­tol (ed. James Belsey, 1989) Mary Ack­land offers some details we’ve not come across else­where:

The Rum­mer is a rab­bit war­ren of a place with cel­lar bars and rooms large and small as well as a his­to­ry as an inn which dates back to the 13th cen­tu­ry. They called in a clever design­er, Alex Waugh, who cre­at­ed sev­er­al restau­rants and bars under one roof and cul­ti­vat­ed an olde worlde, lived-in, almost shab­by look. No-one need feel out of place in this atmos­phere! Alex Waugh made a famous remark to the Ber­nis when he arrived. “If you’ve got cob­webs, keep ’em. If you haven’t, I’ll make you some.” Now that was very clever for 1955.

The Rum­mer was the pro­toype”, she writes; “The Rev­o­lu­tion quick­ly fol­lowed.” There were nine Berni Inns in Bris­tol by 1964, clus­tered around the city cen­tre.

The Berni Inn mod­el seemed to answer a need for acces­si­ble lux­u­ry. On the one hand, steak and wine felt sophis­ti­cat­ed and posh British peo­ple brought up on fish’n’chips and brown ale. On the oth­er hand, every­thing about The Rum­mer was designed to make eat­ing out unin­tim­i­dat­ing.

The Rummer, 2018.

For starters, the fact that they her­mit-crabbed their way into pubs, retained a pub-like char­ac­ter, and called them­selves Inns, gave peo­ple some­thing to latch on to. (See also: gas­trop­ubs.)

Then there was what Mar­tin Wain­wright called “the cru­cial role played by chips as a bridge between tra­di­tion­al fare and the glam­orous… world of sir­loin and black for­est gateau”.  (Even if they did call them ‘chipped pota­toes’ on the menu.)

Final­ly, there was the sim­plic­i­ty of the offer as sum­marised by Mary Ack­land:

The broth­ers planned down to the last detail. They were deter­mined that every last wor­ry about eat­ing out would be removed… The fixed-price, lim­it­ed item menu ensured that cus­tomers knew exact­ly how much they would be pay­ing. The wine list was cut to just 16 names, eight red, six white and two rosé.

The lim­it­ed menu was­n’t only easy for cus­tomers, it also meant that the kitchens could be run with min­i­mal equip­ment by inter­change­able staff using a metic­u­lous man­u­al.

A menu.
SOURCE: Ron­nie Hughes/A Sense of Place.

The chain went nation­wide until there were 147 branch­es all over the coun­try, all fol­low­ing the same for­mu­la. Frank and Aldo sold up to Grand Met­ro­pol­i­tan in 1970. The chain con­tin­ued to oper­ate until the 1990s when Whit­bread bought 115 Berni Inns and, decid­ing that the brand was effec­tive­ly dead, turned half of them into Beefeaters.

Know­ing a bit about the Berni­fi­ca­tion of Bris­tol helps makes sense of the 21st cen­tu­ry pub scene in the city. Many of those famous, his­toric, poten­tial­ly bril­liant pubs are appar­ent­ly still recov­er­ing from their long stretch­es as part of a food-focused chain. We don’t think we’ve ever heard any­one rec­om­mend The Rum­mer or The Hole in the Wall, and the Llan­doger Trow, though it has its charms, is essen­tial­ly the bar and break­fast lounge for a Pre­mier Inn.

It goes with­out say­ing that we’d like to hear your mem­o­ries of Berni Inns but espe­cial­ly the extent to which you recall them feel­ing like pubs, or oth­er­wise.

Read­ing the descrip­tions of plush fur­ni­ture, wood­en tables, and chips with every­thing, we can’t help but won­der if most pubs aren’t Berni­fied in 2018.

Main image, top: a detail from an adver­tise­ment for Berni Inns in Bris­tol on the back of the pro­gramme for the Bris­tol 600 Exhi­bi­tion pub­lished in 1973.

15 thoughts on “Bristol and the Berni Inns”

  1. I’d say not real­ly pubs (in com­par­i­son to urban pubs at the time), more a place you went – prob­a­bly with your par­ents – for a spe­cial occa­sion meal, but with­out break­ing the bank. Attain­able sophis­ti­ca­tion for an emerg­ing mid­dle class that at that time did­n’t know a whole lot about eat­ing out.
    But very def­i­nite­ly the pre­cur­sor to Brew­ers Fayre, Big Steak Pub, Millers Kitchen and all the oth­er sys­tem-cater­ing pub din­ing brands that fol­lowed.

    1. Yes, very much the place for a spe­cial occa­sion when I was young. The key dif­fer­ence between Berni Inns and present-day din­ing pubs is that they were table-ser­vice restau­rants, with all the rit­u­al of hav­ing aper­i­tifs in the bar and “your table is ready for you now, Sir.”

      Inter­est­ing­ly, Whit­bread are now con­vert­ing some Brew­er’s Fayres back into Beefeaters.

  2. That has prompt­ed look­ing out some ear­li­er stuff I did .….…. and there may well be more that I did­n’t use.

    I don’t recall ever going to a Berni Inn – a bit too upmar­ket for poor stu­dents in New­cas­tle upon Tyne in the 1970s, per­haps .…… tho’ with vague mem­o­ries of a baked pota­to, mini-steak, peas .….. pos­si­bly that was a Berni Inn.

    This tho’ while not of Bris­tol was a sad sto­ry with some con­nec­tion to Berni Inns, in rela­tion to St James’ Mar­ket W1 Plan­ning App 12/08886/FULL

    Mau­rice Gorham in Back to the Local pub­lished 1949 takes agin many caus­es amongst which were the Rebuild­ing and Redun­dan­cy of the brew­ers worst pre-war, and the almost as dire effects of war-time bomb­ing; and the brew­ers approach to decor, fur­nish­ings, and sig­nage: ‘…. the for­est of Wat­neys and Char­ring­tons and Tay­lor Walk­ers all over Lon­don grows very depress­ing, and it is good to see that artists are being com­mis­sioned to paint new sign-boards, and that from the less fan­cy ones you can actu­al­ly learn the name.

    After all, the names are part of the appeal of the pubs. It would be far eas­i­er not to go to them if they were all called just Bar­clays or Whit­breads as it might be Lyons and the ABC.’

    He ref­er­ences the Punch House when war-time bomb­ing was almost as dras­tic in its effect as brew­er’s pre-war Rebuild­ing and Redun­dan­cy, and you need­ed to have a 2nd or 3rd string should your 1st have dis­ap­peared: at Pic­cadil­ly Cir­cus, Ward’s Irish House, thence the Stan­dard, and then the Punch House behind the Hay­mar­ket.

    It’s intrigu­ing that the late ’20s / ear­ly ’30s pix refer to the Cap­tains Bar. The present day decor and paint­ings sug­gest more of a naval con­nec­tion rather than mer­chant marine, at least from an ear­li­er time.

    This may risk going a bit off top­ic ……. but I hope that you’ll bear with me.

    I’m still research­ing some of the his­to­ry of the Cap­tains Cab­in for­mer­ly the Punch House when built in the late 1920s, and before that a pub on about the same site the Cock http://pubshistory.com/LondonPubs/Westminster/Cock.shtml

    I’ve asked Spir­it if they have any real back­ground and infor­ma­tion, as the pub appears to have descend­ed into Spir­it (fka Punch) Pub Com­pa­ny via the Scot­tish and New­cas­tle Brew­eries / T and J Bernard route rather than Allied Brew­eries http://flic.kr/p/6bsZ6f – and whilst much of the orig­i­nal exte­ri­or has changed (and an awful lot of the inte­ri­or) it is still the same build­ing and serves a very tol­er­a­ble pint of beer and good food albeit in the new-ish Tay­lor Walk­er for­mat.

    How­ev­er, that did lead me to won­der about the antecedents of pubs that are often oblit­er­at­ed in the changes over the years.

    The pix at pubshistory.com don’t reveal any brew­er as such, and they were sup­plied by a Jane Long who said that her grand­fa­ther Harold Sin­clair used to run the Punch House for Know­land Bros in Lon­don in the late ’20s.

    I came across Know­land Broth­ers in the Lon­don Gazette 1987 http://www.london-gazette.co.uk/issues/51078/supplements/12296/page.pdf , as part of a group of com­pa­nies being wound up by the same out­fit, pos­si­bly giv­en some of the oth­er names all part of or owned/taken over by Berni Inns.

    Sig­nage of the Cap­tains Cab­in comes from http://www.lowerroadsigns.co.uk/LRS-pub-signage-catalogue.pdf and is of a house style – but whose house style I’m not sure. It’s pret­ty much the same as oth­ers of the Spir­it / Tay­lor Walk­er empire like the Sai­is­bury in St Mar­t­in’s Lane.

    There’s a lot of what Josephine Tey char­ac­terised (in the Daugh­ter of Time) as Tony­pandy – though what the sources of some of these is to be won­dered. One ‘review’ of the Captain’s Cab­in is clear­ly at odds with the known record as the whole area includ­ing the old Cock (and no sug­ges­tion that I’ve come across that it was a coach­ing inn, more like­ly more a mar­ket booz­er for the old St James’ Mar­ket) was re-devel­oped in the 1920s, and the Punch House was new in the new build­ing, with at least the 1st floor the Lotus Restau­rant.

    When it changed to the Cap­tains Cab­in is unclear, though it appears that in the Punch House there was already a Cap­tains Bar in 1929 described as clear­ly in the Know­land Broth­ers style of art deco inte­ri­or.

    I have found no source as yet for the Round the Horn cast sto­ry.

    The Cap­tains Cab­in stands on the site of a pre­vi­ous Coach­ing Inn called the Cock that was lat­er known as the Punch House.

    The cur­rent build­ing was for­mer­ly a pri­vate res­i­dence whose rooms and floors all bore nau­ti­cal names hence when the build­ing became a pub, the nau­ti­cal theme stuck.
    The pub is quite tucked away and gen­er­al­ly over­looked by most West End vis­i­tors. The pub is split across 2 floors, the main down­stairs bar being L‑shaped with a large expanse of stand­ing room in front of bar and seat­ing pushed to sides. The floor has a ships plank­ing effect and there are sev­er­al nau­ti­cal pic­tures in keep­ing with the pub’s name although you can’t help feel it is all a bit con­trived. The far end is slight­ly raised and con­tains some Shake­speare influ­enced pic­tures. The upstairs bar is gen­er­al­ly a bit more sedate and can be reserved for pri­vate func­tions and meet­ings.

    In the 1960’s the cast of BBC’s Round The Horn used to meet here being close to the Paris The­atre stu­dios where the pro­gramme was record­ed.’

    Apolo­gies for wan­der­ing around and prob­a­bly well off top­ic ……..

    Best wish­es

    Dominic

    PS The Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry Soci­ety have been in touch – the fol­low­ing is from their Con­ser­va­tion Advis­er Clare Price ear­li­er today:

    Your com­pre­hen­sive notes make very inter­est­ing read­ing, espe­cial­ly in rela­tion to the Captain’s Cab­in. I am indeed aware of this appli­ca­tion (as statu­to­ry con­sul­tees West­min­ster are oblig­ed to inform the Soci­ety of any plan­ning appli­ca­tions involv­ing demo­li­tion of a list­ed build­ing or in a con­ser­va­tion area) and I have dis­cussed the her­itage impli­ca­tions with the Con­ser­va­tion Offi­cer at West­min­ster. I have been try­ing to organ­ise a site vis­it to see the inte­ri­ors of the build­ings to ascer­tain whether the amount of alter­ation claimed in the His­toric Build­ing State­ment bears any resem­blance to the actu­al sit­u­a­tion. Ian Ren­nie is very slow to respond. I have also been in touch with the Vic­to­ri­an Soci­ety and Ancient Mon­u­ments Soci­ety who have also been con­sult­ed on this and are as keen as I am to get access.

    We have a case­work com­mit­tee meet­ing tonight and I am pre­sent­ing this case to the Trustees for their view. I am rec­om­mend­ing that we object in the strongest pos­si­ble terms to this appli­ca­tion on the basis of a weak jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for sub­stan­tial harm to a list­ed build­ing and detri­men­tal effect on the Con­ser­va­tion Area. I will let you know the out­come of the meet­ing.’

  3. It’s worth not­ing that the pro­to-com­mod­i­fied steak and plaice bar, an obvi­ous riff on our surf ‘n turf, hon­oured ter­roir by offer­ing Bris­tol’s his­toric sher­ry as an aper­i­tive.

    How many hyper-authen­tic mod­ern bars in the city (see Pete Brown’s arti­cle on cool vs. authen­tic­i­ty in Orig­i­nal Grav­i­ty mag­a­zine) do that?

    Like a lot of things we take for grant­ed, the sher­ry was and is very good, and Berni had no qualms to put an old town favourite front and cen­tre.

    Once again, as we see too with the amaz­ing Brew­dog Bars and their exten­sive, local­ized guest beer offer­ings, qual­i­ty and ter­roir can co-exist with ambi­tions of scale, effi­cien­cy, and the “enter­tain­ment expe­ri­ence” .

    Gary

    1. How is it an obvi­ous riff on surf & turf? That’s a sin­gle dish; they’re two sep­a­rate menu items here. The first cita­tion for surf & turf (as Turf and Surf) is the LA Times in 1961, so I’d say it’s broad­ly con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous with this.

      1. Surf and turf in North Amer­i­ca does not con­note only a dish fea­tur­ing both meat and fish; it often con­notes a restau­rant offer­ing both types of eat­ing, togeth­er or sep­a­rate. Restau­rants called Surf ‘n Turf were com­mon in North Amer­i­ca, ir fea­tur­ing the words in a restau­rant name.

        We had a long-lived Surf ‘n Turf in Mon­tre­al, for exam­ple.

        I was refer­ring to the name of the bar, Steak and Plaice, in regard to the influ­ence sug­gest­ed.

        Whether or not the surf ‘n turf real­ly dates from ear­ly 60s, the offer­ing of seafood and steak as keynotes of a cer­tain kind of U.S. restau­rant exist­ed in the 1950s imo and B+B stat­ed a Berni had vis­it­ed and been impressed by the U.S. steak places of the 50s.

        So that’s my think­ing here.

        Gary

        1. The name of the bar is Sawyer’s Arms. The full menu image is here. I can’t find any ref­er­ence to “surf and turf” as a genre of restau­rant from this era, though. Do you have a link or pic­tures? I doubt Berni need­ed to go to Amer­i­ca to come up with the idea of putting steak and fish on the same menu.

          1. Yes I saw Sawyers on the source cit­ed, I checked it ini­tial­ly.

            Sor­ry I can’t sat­is­fy you fur­ther, but this is com­ments, on a sub­sidiary point too, so I’m done.

            Gary

          2. I said I would­n’t con­tin­ue here but wish to clar­i­fy that the 1960s restau­rant I had in mind in Mon­tre­al was Rib ‘n Reef, found­ed in 1960 on Decarie Boule­vard.

            Improb­a­bly, it still exists, at same loca­tion. I stayed a few blocks from there, by coin­ci­dence, on the week­end when vis­it­ing fam­i­ly.

            Next time I’m in town I might drop in and chat with the own­er if he’s there.

            This name and the found­ing year make my point equal­ly, but it is also true that Surf and Turf has fea­tured in restau­rant names in dif­fer­ent places, includ­ing the U.S. cur­rent­ly, eg in the New York area. It was and is a genre of eat­ing, not just a dish, as denot­ed also by sim­i­lar­ly-named estab­lish­ments.

            I may return to the top­ic on my web­site, as I think I can access a 1960s menu of Rib ‘n Reef.

            Gary

  4. I have fond mem­o­ries of the Berni Inns in Bris­tol in the late six­ties. I was a stu­dent at the time and went to Horts, Marco’s and oth­er Berni Inns with my future par­ents in law. Apart from them being cel­lar bars which I loved, the two things that stick in my mem­o­ry were the schooners of Bris­tol Cream sher­ry (which I still drink today) and the glass­es of prop­er cof­fee topped with cream. Seemed quite lux­u­ri­ous at the time.

  5. Sad­ly of course the Crown Estate pre­vailed, and there’s now an unre­mark­able, ‘upmar­ket’, and undis­tin­guished ‘neigh­bour­hood’ – just what we need­ed 🙂

    https://stjameslondon.co.uk/neighbourhoods/st-james-market

    I do though have pix of the Cap­tains Cab­in, and more on-top­ic scans etc of cut­tings and menus from Berni Inns that I can mail for use / upload­ing.

  6. In the late 70s and ear­ly 80s, my mem­o­ry is that Berni Inns were priced a lit­tle bit upmar­ket from Beefeaters, and often, where the two were in direct com­pe­ti­tion, had the bet­ter prop­er­ties. Beefeaters tend­ed to be direct pub con­ver­sions where­as Berni Inns were often in hotels and coach­ing inns.

  7. Most inter­est­ing his­tor­i­cal aspect of the menu to me is the idea of Span­ish Bur­gundy, Chablis and Sauternes. Next most is that they felt it nec­es­sary to state “chilled” fruit juices, and final­ly that they were open until mid­night.

  8. I grew up in Bris­tol and in the late six­ties and ear­ly sev­en­ties going to a Berni with my par­ents for Steak and Chips (always served with an enor­mous, usu­al­ly under cooked grilled toma­to, which I left) was a real treat. I can remem­ber going to the Lan­dog­ger Trow and I think one in Chip­ping Sod­bury and I think the Cross Hands in Old Sod­bury (where the Queen stopped unan­nounced in 1981 after her Range Rover got stuck in snow). My abid­ing mem­o­ries (being to young to drink beer at the time!) were of places that were always fur­nished in rus­tic style and the schooners of sher­ry and the brewed cof­fee served with cream that my mum would drink.

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