Tired from a long weekend of canoeing and camping, I pulled up under a pool of light spilling out from Bernie’s Cafe in Moss Vale. It was 7pm on a Sunday night and the small town was quiet. Bernie’s red neon sign was a solitary beacon on the otherwise sleepy main street. I just wanted to get home. I had a two hour drive ahead, but I needed to eat so I decided to drop in at the roadside diner and pick up something quick to take away.
A Bit About Bernie’s (to be read to the imagined tune of ragtime and aged sepia film footage).
Bernie’s first opened its doors in 1925 when Emmanuel Benardo, fresh off the boat from Greece, established The Central Cafe. Two years later he upped stumps and moved down the road, embracing his new Aussie identity by changing the café’s name to Bernie’s, the affectionate nickname bestowed upon him by the Southern Highlands locals. After Bernie’s death in 1954 his wife and children managed the cafe until they sold it in 1958. Many years passed and the iconic restaurant was almost forgotten. Enter Ioannis Benardo, Emmanuel’s grandson. Together with his business partner and head chef Giuliano Colosimo he revived Bernie’s, reinventing the cafe with a stylised Art Deco diner theme and a commitment to the original spirit of Bernie’s: simple fare and stellar service.
Walking into the diner I felt like I was stepping into a Hollywood stereotype of 1930s middle America. Red (p?)leather booths and stools; black and white photos of old time Moss Vale and the original Bernie’s; a stainless steel counter bar. I stopped at the counter to check out the menu, hand–written across several blackboards above the grill. Sleepy and sun-touched I was feeling indecisive. An elfin man in a white shirt, bow tie and pinstriped apron appeared in front of me.
‘How are you tonight?’ he beamed.
I smiled back, surprised. ‘I’m good thanks, just deciding what to have’.
‘Well‘ he began, rubbing his hands together, ‘how hungry are you? On a scale of 1-10?’
What followed was unlike any other small town diner experience I have had in Australia, and I have had my share. Just ask me about dodgy roadside meals and surly servers on long haul journeys. This, by contrast, was pure southern hospitality and it was surreal.
It was important that I tried the smoked pastrami. The man, who happened to be one of the owners, was horrified to hear that I didn’t know what pastrami was. He cut me a slice and was handing it to me when another man’s head popped up from inside one of the booths.
‘Is she trying the pastrami?’ he grinned.
‘Yup’, the owner replied. ‘That’s my brother’ he told me. His brother was in a booth with a bunch of friends and looked ecstatic that I was trying the pastrami. It was delicious.
While he prepared my smoked pastrami sandwich, the elfin man motioned for me to sit on the low stool at the bar. We had more chatting to do. He asked if I had been to America. New York? Yes? So did I go to the great diners? Reuben’s or Katz’s? He looked at me expectantly. I had the familiar sensation that I was standing on the precipice of an all-consuming subculture, that he lived and breathed this stuff that I knew nothing about and once I dived in, things would never be the same.
I told him no, I hadn’t been to those delis and he was momentarily downcast, but it passed as he launched into a potted history of the sandwich I was about to eat.
It all began over a Poker game at Blackstone’s in Nebraska in the early 1920’s. It started with the Reuben sandwich, a classic piece with corned beef, Swiss cheese, Russian or Thousand Island dressing and sauerkraut on rye bread. This later gave rise to its sister sandwich, the Rachel. Simply replace the corned beef with pastrami and sauerkraut with coleslaw and there you have it.
He slapped the sandwich in a basket in front of me. At the same time, his business partner came out of the kitchen with a basket full of wood chips and held it under my nose.
I smelled it.
‘They are the wood chips we use in the smoker.’ They are special wood chips, he told me proudly, and told me a name that I remember sounding Middle Eastern, but I can’t recall what it was. I was too busy swooning at their bow ties, their vitality and the sandwich, which awaited my attention. The man with the wood chips suggested that I come to the kitchen and see the smoker. I love the idea of preserved food whether it’s smoked, pickled or dehydrated, so it was with some excitement that I stepped behind the counter and peered into the little smoker. It was awesome. And so was the sandwich.
On the long drive home I found myself thinking about Bernie’s. When I arrived there I was in a slump. I was exhausted and wanted something to fill the tank, eager to eat and be on my way. Instead I was served a traditional sandwich prepared with passion and some genuine human interaction on the side. It filled me up, and it wasn’t just the food.