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Hope History Club: Journeying in to the Berni Inn

At our History Club meeting at the end of October, we started off by talking about the epitome of fine dining that was the Berni Inn, where you were served to a high standard by waiters and waitresses in smart black and white uniforms and made to feel that you were something special.

The Berni Inn chain was established in the UK in the 1950s, by brothers Frank and Aldo Berni, who opened their first Berni Inn in Bristol in 1956. By 1970, when they sold the chain to Grand Metropolitan for £14.5 million, there were nearly 150 of them. Grimsby’s was of course in the building that was once Chambers and later became Chambers again.

We started off the session with a musical interlude from the genius Victoria Wood’s musical “That Day We Sang”. The song, “Journey in to the Berni Inn” perfectly captures the perception that a night out at the Berni was something special and a bit posh. Steak with grilled tomato showed you were a diner of finesse and the greenery decorating your plate was of course Garni, not bits of cress.

We then looked at some old menus. The first, from the 1970s, proudly announced the Berni

Inn was now open in the Market Place and offered a half pound prime fillet steak (when available), grilled to your liking and served with French fried potatoes, button mushrooms, tomato, roll and butter, and to follow, ice cream or a selection of cheese and biscuits for the exorbitant price of £1.22. Meanwhile prime rump steak with all the trimmings and dessert was 77p, half an oven roasted chicken 68p and golden fried fillets of plaice 58p. Red or white Spanish wine was 17p a glass or if you were really celebrating, you could get a bottle of champagne for £2.35.

By the early 1980s, the menu had expanded to include pate or the crème de la crème of starters, prawn cocktail for £1.15 and exotic Taramasalata for 95p. A 10oz rump steak with French fried potatoes or a jacket with sour cream and chives and garden peas or whole French beans and a roll and butter now cost £6.25, whilst the half an oven roasted chicken, now served with a savoury barbecue sauce, was £3.90.

The 1980s menu declares that “Berni has earned an enviably high reputation for the consistent quality of its fish dishes – just what you’d expect – after all we probably serve more fish than any other restaurant group in the UK.”

Things had moved on from the 1970s when their fruit and veg offering largely consisted of them plonking a tomato and a few button mushrooms on your plate. Now you could get loads of mushrooms as an extra or swap your potatoes, peas and beans for a salad of lettuce, peppers, tomato, onion and cucumber, with or without French dressing.

Admittedly, there wasn’t a lot of choice for the vegetarians, but that could be said for most eating places at that time. It would be a few years before delicacies such as a plate of mashed potato with some cheese and broccoli thrown at it were added to cater for the non-meat eaters. Personally, I’d have just gone for three courses of pudding. Assuming you had room for a dessert, the ice cream or cheeseboard had now been joined by such delights as lemon and sultana cheesecake, old English apple pie, sorbet sensation and the Berni meringue fountain!

Choice was limited on the menu, but Sylv felt that now we have too much choice and the quality isn’t always as good. Rolly commented that when he was first married in his early twenties, the Berni Inn was seen as a special night out, whilst their advertising in the 1970s invited people to “join the Berni Set.” The 1980s menu certainly plays up the poshness for all its worth, by serving Connoisseur Coffees containing a full measure of spirit or liqueur, served in a large goblet with a lavish topping of cream.

Sylvia said that the Berni Inn where she grew up in Sheffield was massive and they would go there as a family for a treat. Her mother would tell her father, “Shut your gob, I’ll order the food”, but her typical Yorkshireman father confounded the waiter by asking if they had “Tats” and talked about them having a bottle of Chateau de Poo when they went there.

Berni Inn was sold again to Whitbread in 1995 and they converted the outlets into their own Beefeater restaurants. The Berni had ceased to be. It was an ex inn.

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