From the outside, Bernie’s doesn’t look like much.
Nestled between an antiques dealership and an alterations shop in Tuckahoe Shopping Center, it’s quite easy to miss. The faded, once-red sign and closed, tarnished blinds certainly don’t add to its street appeal; however, the allure of this longstanding West End dining icon is apparent upon entry.
Bernie’s laid-back interior, complete with old-school college pennants, satirical posters, and chaotically arranged tables, evokes a sense of detachment from the exhausting order of the outside world.
This past Saturday evening, I ate at Bernie’s for the first time since my days as an underclassman, and I’m pleased to report that it hasn’t changed a bit.
The same quintessential Bernie’s smell of warm Italian bread and sandwich meats mixed with “aged building” and a hint of cigarette smoke still inhabits the restaurant, welcoming regulars and new customers alike.
It’s worth noting that this particular trip to Bernie’s was the only occasion during which I’ve seen the restaurant empty. I was somewhat taken aback — some of the most valuable aspects of the traditional Bernie’s experience are the fight for table space and the exorbitantly long wait for food. Nevertheless, considering Bernie’s reputation as a casual lunch restaurant, I shouldn’t have been surprised that it wasn’t full at seven p.m. on a Saturday.
After leaving my backpack at what used to be my usual place – a visibly worn square table, decorated with old potato chip bags and tucked next to the trash bin – I paid for my meal (as a seasoned Bernie’s veteran, I knew to order ahead of time). The same man who has always worked the counter handed over my Italian sub (which Bernie’s calls a “Regular”) wrapped in two layers of tinfoil, as well as my cheese pizza.
Having paid for the food, I hurried to my table, almost tripping as I navigated the maze of tables and chairs. I could feel the heat of the Italian bread through the tinfoil as I haphazardly tore it open. Although I was more than ready to eat, I took a moment to observe my “Regular.” Like the restaurant itself, it wasn’t necessarily pretty, but it had an intangible visual appeal.
The sub was just as I remembered — exceptional.
The warm bread had a crunchy exterior with a soft, doughy interior, and the bread-to-meat ratio was optimal. The mixed Italian meats were warm like the bread and had a satisfyingly subtle saltiness. Hot peppers, oil, and vinegar complemented the taste of the meat without overpowering it, while lettuce added another layer of texture.
I finished the sandwich in under a minute, and my only regret was having ordered a half instead of a whole. I quickly and optimistically moved on to the pizza.
The pizza was personal sized and perfectly round. It didn’t quite live up to the high standard set by the sandwich, yet it was enjoyable nonetheless.
The cheese and oregano had a very satisfying taste; however, it was somewhat overpowered by the tomato sauce, which seemed very vinegary. I noted that the texture of the dough and crust erred on the crunchier side, which can be either a benefit or disadvantage depending on personal preference. The different aspects of the pizza actually fit together fairly well, but it was apparent that Bernie’s strengths lay more in sandwich-making than pizza.
It didn’t take long to finish my dinner, but during the mere fifteen minutes I spent at Bernie’s, my stress evaporated. Bernie’s food and atmosphere work in tandem, providing customers with an laid-back, authentically local dining experience.
All photos by Parker Conquest.