Bristol company Hort’s, which was run by Frank and Aldo Berni (whose father ran a chain of Italian ice cream parlours in South Wales before World War I) and Paul Rosse, changed the dining-out habits of Britons for two decades.
After the ending of meat rationing in 1954, the Bemis hoped to import American-style, controlled portion steak and chips catering, served in as authentic an Olde English atmosphere as possible.
The Rummer Hotel in Bristol (a historic pub in St Nicholas Market sometimes claimed as one of the oldest inns in the country) was their prototype. They heard that the Bristol Corporation-owned pub was available and moved quickly. They won the tenancy and called in a designer who exploited all the period details.
Many people in the food industry thought the concept had no chance of success because the menu was based solely on steak. To Frank and Aldo’s delight – and everyone else’s surprise – the idea was an immediate success, and soon, more outlets were opened. The company was renamed Berni Inns Ltd in 1961, and the company went public in 1962.
In 1968, the 100th Berni Inn was opened at Jacomelli’s in Leeds.
Berni catered to all ages and groups and always kept to their policy of serving open grilled steaks, fresh not frozen, and over half of the customers visiting a Berni Inn chose steak. The most frequently ordered meal, even as late as the 1980s, was prawn cocktail, steak and Black Forest gateau.
Many a shy young man took his girlfriend to a Berni for his first experience of entertaining a lady, sitting down to a table with all the trimmings of wine and service.
Other companies copied the idea and started chains such as the Grill and Cheese in the Corner Houses and The London Steak Houses.
The Berni Inns chain was sold to the Grand Metropolitan Hotels Group in 1970 for £14.5 million, and Schooner Inns were absorbed as part of the Berni operation.
Despite efforts to keep up to date by introducing starters, by the mid-1980s, Berni realised that considerable rationalisation and change would have to be made if the restaurants were to survive.
The Inns were sold to Whitbread in 1995, who converted the outlets into their own Beefeater restaurants.
Aldo Berni died in Jersey in 1997 at the age of 88. Frank Berni died in Bristol on 10 July 2000, aged 96.