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. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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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