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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.