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.


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”