Bristol and the Berni Inns

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.

Pub Life: Pork Pie

Illustration: pork pie.

At 5:45 the crowd is getting restless — where is the pork pie? Where are the cubes of cheese? The nibbles and snacks?

Of course they’re a courtesy, not a right, so nobody can complain, even if they do it jokingly. But, still, when you’ve come to expect it and it isn’t there, you get restless, and start thinking about buying a bag of crisps or, worse, going home for tea.

There is a stir. The herald first, mustard and serviettes, then the thing itself, golden and stout, cut into eighths on a plate.

It has to go down in front of somebody and the somebodies it goes down in front of feign disinterest. A regular heckles, “Alright for some.” Temptation is too much: after about five seconds, someone shrugs and, takes a slice, might as well, then a second to pass to a friend.

The pie is already looking ravaged, crust crumbling and jelly spilling.

Panic sets in and chairs scrape, everyone rushing but trying to look as if they’re not.

Taking three slices, one regular offers a narration to explain his motives: “Best get in before it’s all gone, one for each of us.”

The entire pie has disappeared before the first bowl of cheese has appeared.

The pub itself seems to sigh with contentment. No need to rush away, stay for another, maybe two. Sunday night saved.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 16 December 2017: Portman, Golden Pints, Pretzel Pieces

Here’s everything that’s grabbed our attention in the world of beer and pubs in the last seven days, from Tiny Rebel’s labelling woes to pairing beer with chocolate.

(Note: because we’re on the road we put this together on Thursday so any exciting developments from Friday might be missing, depending on whether we could be bothered to fiddle with editing the post on a phone screen.)

First, undoubtedly the biggest story of the week was the Portman Group’s ruling against Tiny Rebel over the design of the Cwtch can. This has generated commentary to reinforce each and every set of prejudices:

The most essential items of reading, though, are the Portman Group’s own report on the decision, and Tiny Rebel’s response which comes with (perhaps questionable) figures for the final cost of the exercise.


Here’s one we added from a smartphone sitting in a pub on Friday: Emma Inch asks if we might apply a version of the Bechdel test to beer. We don’t do much Women in Beer stuff these days, even though one of us is, of course, a Woman in Beer, so this very much resonates.


Detail from the cover of the menu.

We always enjoy dissections of artefacts from recent beer history which is why this piece  by Josh Noel about an early-to-mid-1990s menu from Goose Island’s original Chicago brewpub caught our eye. He discovered it while researching his upcoming book about Goose Island, an extract from which is quoted in this post, and it tells us a lot about where American beer was at just 25 years ago:

The menu features three core year-round beers: Golden Goose Pilsner, which had been a brewpub mainstay since opening in 1988; Honker’s Ale, the only 1988 original that has endured throughout Goose Island’s 30-year history (though the fading popularity of the easy drinking, malt forward style leaves it at the periphery these days); and Tanzen Gans Kolsch, likely one of the earliest examples of the kolsch style made by an American craft brewer… The Brewmaster’s Specials included another 19 beers that rotated seasonally, including a heretofore rarity in Chicago called IPA (“very strong, very bitter, very pale”).


Katie Wiles and Christine Cryne.

Having corresponded with her on and off for some years we finally met Christine Cryne completely coincidentally in our local pub earlier in the year. Now Katie Wiles gives us a profile of one of the quiet stars of British beer based on a lunchtime chocolate-and-beer pairing session at London’s Wenlock Arms:

I’m eager to see what it’s like to drink beer with a Master Beer Trainer, so we decide to break open the Oddfellow’s Chocolate, a favourite for Christine’s pairings. “It’s best to pair chocolate with a beer that is over 4% ABV,” Christine explains. “You want to make sure that the chocolate either amplifies the flavours or tones them down – you can try the same type of beer with two different chocolates and bring out completely different tastes.”


Illustration: blue Whitbread beer crate.

Concealed within this bit of PR fluff, an oddity: Black Sheep has brewed a Costa coffee infused beer for hospitality company Whitbread. Whitbread. Hospitality company Whitbread. Hospitality. There is something very sad about this story.

(Disclosure, we guess: Whitbread allowed us to use archive images from their collection in 20th Century Pub.)


Illustration: a glowing pint of beer.

The first batch of Golden Pints posts are in. We won’t be sharing every one that pops up but this is by way of a reminder that this is still A Thing, in case you were in two minds about whether to bother. Ours will be up sometime next week, we hope.

  • Tim Sheahan — Northern Monk, Siren, Edge
  • Phil Lowry — Adnams, Fullers, Harvey’s, Tiny Rebel, Cloudwater
  • James Beeson — Cloudwater, Deya, Verdant, Five Points

We’ll finish with this work of art:

Pub Life: the Irresistible Appeal of Pork Scratchings

Pork scratchings on a pub table.

The garden of a Cornish pub on a sunny afternoon in May.

Two men, probably father and son, buy pints of lager and take a table. They sit waiting for someone, checking their messages, peering up and down the street.

After 15 minutes or so their friend arrives. Everyone shakes hands and express their delight at seeing each other. The newcomer dishes out gifts one at a time — cans of Mythos lager, ouzo, olive oil, and more. He is, of course, Greek.

His hosts offer him something in return: a pork scratching from the open packet on the table. He looks disgusted and prods with his finger, peering at the text on the packaging.

‘What is this? Oh, God, no! No!’

The locals shrug and keep picking at the pile of hairy curls in the cellophane wrapper. Eventually, perhaps absentmindedly, the Greek guest does the same. A look passes over his face. His hand dips back into the bag.

After a few minutes he goes to buy a round of drinks. When he returns, performing the traditional three-pint grip, there are two fresh packets of pork scratchings snared between his teeth.

Resistance is futile.

Guinness Pub Snack Ideas, 1961: Sild, Tongue and Fish Titbits

The Guinness Guide to Profitable Snacks (cover)

The other day we told you about Guinness’s drive to get more publicans serving food in the 1960s. Now, as promised, here’s some info on the recipes they were pushing.

The book, more-or-less A5 sized and in hard-covers, has a mix of black-and-white and colour photos, the latter with that particular gaudiness that makes food look faintly obscene in any book published before about, say, 1990. If you follow @70s_party on Twitter you’ll know what we mean although it must be said nothing in the Guinness book is as fundamentally horrifying as most of the excessively ‘creative’ recipes presented there.

It begins with a few double-page spreads like this one:

'Why snacks?' (spread with man drinking beer and bullet point list)

That’s interesting because it summarises where things were at in 1961: food definitely wasn’t the norm and people needed convincing, ideally with a bit of what we assume passed for female-friendly eye candy back then.

Continue reading “Guinness Pub Snack Ideas, 1961: Sild, Tongue and Fish Titbits”