Entrepreneurs introduced us to prawn cocktail, steak and chips and Black Forest cake and served lunch to The Beatles at the city’s Grand Hotel.
Frank and Aldo Berni were the founders of the biggest chain of restaurants this side of the Atlantic, offering prawn cocktail, steak and chips and Black Forest cake on an affordable menu for people ordinary. But they cut their teeth in ambitious catering by running cafes in Plymouth and Exeter that were lost to wartime German bombing.
The exact locations are unclear at this time, but the town’s cafes were the brothers’ first foray into entrepreneurship and their roots in Devon whetted their appetite for bigger things. They opened the very first Berni Inn in 1956 in the former Rummer’s pub in St Nicholas Market, Bristol, and people just couldn’t get enough.
And who could blame them when you could order a steak and chips, bun and butter and pudding ice cream for seven shillings and sixpence (37p)? It became the favorite spot for a party night or an important date, and by the early 1960s Frank and Aldo were opening restaurants in a new location every month, stretching from the Westcountry to the rest of the UK.
The popular choice of a prawn cocktail entrée, steak and chips, followed by Black Forest cake for dessert, was quickly seen as the pinnacle of sophistication in a country where ready meals at home tended to be bland and uninteresting. If you’re feeling adventurous, your meal could be preceded by a schooner of Bristol’s famous sherry, accompanied by a carafe of wine and topped off with a coffee washed down with whiskey (Irish) or brandy (French).
Always on the hunt for impressive premises, in 1963 Berni’s company bought the elegant and historic Grand Hotel overlooking Plymouth Hoe for £100,000 and spent £60,000 upgrading the building. Their priority was to offer reasonably priced food rather than accommodation, so they removed 10 rooms and added four new restaurants, each serving different pockets but with steak as standard.
In the Steak and Plaice bar, for example, diners could enjoy a fried fillet of plaice for five shillings and nine pence (29 pence), while in the Steak and Duck bar patrons could feast on half a duckling Wiltshire roast, at 17 shillings. and sixpence (88p). This was the restaurant chosen by the Beatles who stopped for lunch at the Berni Grand in September 1967, en route to Cornwall, while filming Magical Mystery Tour.
Managing Director Mr G Pearson revealed at the time: “They arrived quite unexpectedly. They chose one of our restaurants – the Duck Bar, where we serve roast duck or steak – and sat down at a corner table. Meanwhile, fans had caught wind of the band’s location – the bright blue and yellow bus parked outside was a big clue. John, Paul, George and Ringo signed autographs in Elliot Street outside The Grand before posing for what have become classic photos sitting on the grass with the Smeaton Tower in the background.
Plymouth Berni Grand remained as Berni until it was sold in 1985, by which time Frank and Aldo had retired as millionaires. But their beginnings are much more modest. Frank, Aldo and their brother Marco were born and raised in the mountains of northern Italy, moving as young adults in the late 1920s to join their grandfather and father in the South of Italy. Wales, where they ran a series of “temperance bars”.
Catering to a religious crowd who thought drink was the devil, they did not sell alcohol, but enticed customers with cakes, ice cream, tea, coffee and tobacco. It was when their mother died, leaving them £300, that Frank and Aldo moved to Exeter to open their first cafe, followed by a second in Plymouth. Then, in 1938, they unveiled their Bristol premises in Queens Road, Clifton, still alcohol-free, but with a music license for live performances.
Disaster struck two years later when Frank and Marco were interned as enemy aliens after Italy allied with Germany in World War II. Aldo, who held a British passport, managed to keep all three businesses in operation, but lost the cafes in Plymouth and Exeter when they were destroyed in German bombing. The Bristol premises were badly damaged.
When Frank was released the couple decided to think bigger and bolder and in 1943 they became the new owners of Hort’s in Broad Street, Bristol, a prestigious and well-established restaurant with a liquor licence. They had grown rapidly with branches in Gloucester and South Wales, but still failed to tap into the potentially lucrative market of ordinary locals.
In the 1950s, Frank took a study trip to the United States where he learned valuable lessons about how American restaurants were run. He wasn’t impressed with most of the food they served, but he saw a lot of potential in their family steakhouses and the way quality, cooking and portion sizes were carefully controlled. The seeds of Berni Inns were quickly sown and the rest is history.
Countless anniversaries and accomplishments were soon marked by a meal at the Berni Inn as the nation enthusiastically embraced the new restaurant craze. As the empire grew, this was the place you could guarantee your food would be exactly what you expected and eat it in a clean, plush environment.
In 1970, 14 years after the first Berni Inn opened, the brothers sold the restaurant chain to Grand Metropolitan for £14.5 million. Although the menu had expanded a bit, after a decade a Berni meal was considered quite dated and boring. More and more pubs served similar meals, while people’s palates were educated on continental vacations and fancier alternatives popped up everywhere.
The Berni name finally died out in 1995 when Whitbread bought the business and the inns became Beefeater branded pubs. Frank had retired to Jersey, where he died in 2000, while Aldo remained a proud, larger-than-life Bristol character until his death in 1997.
The Grand Hotel in Plymouth was eventually turned into apartments, but do you remember when it was the Berni Grand? What are your best memories of dining at a Berni Inn? Let us know in the comments section below.
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