A GREEN DREAM — It was always St. Patty’s Day at a once famous River City restaurant. Pictured above is one of the most colorful businessmen to ever serve Jacksonville, the legendary Bernard Berney, who may’ve looked like a leprechaun at first glance. He loved green so much that he actually made it into Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” newspaper column. Without fail, Berney dressed in green garments, sporting a green diamond ring and an ever-ready smile.
Berney used to be a familiar sight downtown, standing at his restaurant’s front door. His popular slogan? “Dine with the Man in Green.” Berney’s Restaurant was located in the Elk’s Club Building on Forsyth Street, next to the old Roosevelt Hotel. His eatery opened on St. Patrick’s Day, 1927, and closed during the early 1960s.
Huge green billboards ballyhooed Berney’s on roads leading into Jacksonville. The establishment was bedecked in his favorite color, with a green bar, booths, chairs, table cloths, and floor tiles. Shamrocks adorned some of the ceilings. From green menus, patrons selected such regal dishes as veal pepperoni and stuffed lobster. The establishment even drew notables like Greer Garson (“Mrs. Miniver,” “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”) and New York Yankees player Hank Greenberg. Prominent local citizens received the honor of having their favorite sandwiches named after them.
BULLDOG IN PENTHOUSE — Customers always asked about Peggy first, and about Berney next, as Berney himself reminisced. Peggy was the businessman’s beloved Boston Bulldog. Her image graced restaurant glassware and china. The cute pooch with the green outfit spent her days in a green, custom-built doghouse in the restaurant office. At night, she slept in her master’s green penthouse.
Berney’s abode boasted quite a view, sitting atop the eleven-story Florida Life Building. This structure stands at 117 North Laura Street, close to the Elks Club Building and the present-day Bank of America tower. (It’s the tall building on the left-side of the old postcard.) The celebrated Jax architect Henry Klutho designed the Florida Life Building, which was completed in 1912. According to Jacksonville’s Architectural Heritage, the penthouse, “a pretty little three-room cottage,” was added in 1914, and the rooftop was landscaped with grass and shrubbery. The City of Jacksonville will preserve the old Florida Life Building for posterity.
The color green had fascinated Berney since he was an infant. He selected and wore green clothes as a child, for he found the color to be very relaxing. Apparently, many other people feel the same way. According to one survey, blue is the favorite color for 35% of Americans, but green ranks second (16%), followed by purple (10%) and red (9%).
LIFE & TRAVEL — Interestingly, Berney may never have visited Ireland, a most emerald country. He had not yet traveled there when interviewed in 1963, late in his life. Berney had immigrated to America from Russia in 1905, when he was 12. He moved to Jacksonville as a teenager and worked at the prominent Mason Hotel, which later became the Mayflower. Berney began by sweeping out the basement, but he eventually rose to the position of hotel manager. Demolished in 1978, the Mayflower Hotel was located at 307 West Bay Street, the site of BellSouth Building today.
In 1927, Berney and a partner, Gus Seligman, opened Berney’s Delicatessen & Grill. Before moving into the penthouse, Berney lived at the Roosevelt Hotel, next to the eatery. It must’ve been very convenient for him to reside nearby, for his business venture required much personal effort. The entrepreneur worked more than 18 hours a day, six days a week, before poor health forced him to sale his establishment in 1962. Bernard Berney passed away in 1967.
An optical shop and a Christian Science Reading Room now occupy the front half of Berney’s old dining area. Several years ago, the Elks Club Building was renovated. During this time, I received permission to visit a section of the dining room that had long been locked up. The bar still remained, covered in dust and backed with a long mirror that featured a fish in the center. There were also a few tables, chairs, several Christmas decorations, and an empty cash register. Little else indicated, though, that this had once been a culinary hotspot, an emerald eatery that had added so much color to the local dining scene.
written by Glenn Emery