Welcome to haute cuisine: how Berni boys brought dining out to the masses

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By Nottingham Post | Friday, December 02, 2011, 07:30

IT all began with Berni Inns. Before brothers Frank and Aldo Berni revolutionised the nation's eating habits, few people had enjoyed the experience of a pub meal, and even less knew what a good steak really tasted like.

But, cashing in on the emergence from post-war austerity, they brought a sophisticated new way of socialising to the British public. Steak and chips became the nation's favourite meal.

Developing an American concept, they started in 1955 with a pub restaurant in Bristol – and soon went nationwide.

After years of rationing when good meat had been considered a rare luxury, people could not get enough of their prime Argentine steaks.

They came with a usual starter of prawn cocktail, followed by Black Forest gateaux. Diners were quite prepared to pay a few shillings for such culinary delights.

The first Berni Inn I visited was The Hutt at Ravenshead.

I am not sure where it came in the Nottingham timetable but others included the Chateau at Wilford, the Sawyers Arms in Listergate, the Black Boy in Market Street, The Grosvenor in Mansfield Road and the Old Cricket Players, in Woolpack Lane.

In 1979, a presentation luncheon was held at Black Boy to honour 89 Berni employees who had clocked up 1,214 years of service between them.

They came to Nottingham from all over the Midlands to pick up carriage and mantel clocks, teasmades and silver tea services, from Midlands director John Elsdon Lee and Norman Brown, manager of the Black Boy, an award-winning jewel in the Berni crown.

From The Chateau came waitresses Marjorie Boyle, Sheila Lee, Beatrice Key and secretary Beryl Williams.

The Old Cricket Players sent along branch sectary Christine Sharpe and barmaid Nesta Huyson.

The Grosvenor was represented by secretary Audrey Kingsbury and waiter Dennis Cobo.

And from The Hutt came Dorothy Woodstock, a domestic who had been cleaning for Berni Inns for 24 years.

The brothers were not there. They had retired by then, but everyone raised a glass to the two men.

They came originally from Bardi, a mountain town west of Parma. Grandfather Berni is reputed to have had a menagerie in Paris in 1870 but moved to start a new life in south Wales... after victims of the Prussian siege ate the exhibits.

Old Mr Berni soon established an expanding chain of temperance bars where Vimto, Dandelion & Burdock, Horehound beer and Botanic Porter were the drinks of choice.

There were three sons in the family: Frank, Aldo and Marco. Marco pursued an independent career as a restaurateur, but Frank and Aldo invested a £300 inheritance from their mother in a cafe in Exeter.

It was the start of the Berni phenomenon.

During the Second World War, Frank and Marco were interned, but Aldo was called up – only to be rejected on medical grounds.

Instead he worked in a market garden during the day, and kept the business afloat by moonlighting.

Frank and Aldo picked up the threads after the war, buying a successful restaurant in Bristol, where giant Dover soles or man-sized steaks were the order of the day.

This would be the basis of a new business venture started in the historic Rummer Inn in Bristol, where they served up Argentinian steak, chips, peas a roll and butter, plus pudding or cheese, at a fixed price of 7s 6d (37.5p).

Expansion was rapid, and in 1962 the company went public.

By the time it was sold to Grand Metropolitan in 1970, and Frank retired to Jersey – better off by £14.5m – the chain numbered 147 outlets in Britain and many more in Japan.

Sadly, the name of Berni was lost when everything was sold to Whitbread and the inns were renamed Beefeater Pubs.

Aldo Berni died in 1997 at the age of 88, Frank Berni died in 2000. He was 96.

      

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