Bert’s and Ernie’s: two Tahoe dining institutions forever tied together  

As either a parent or a child, if you’ve ever tuned in to the television show “Sesame Street,” then the characters of Bert and Ernie are probably engrained in your memories. Perhaps the pair doesn’t resonate as much with the younger generation nowadays, but that doesn’t stop the connection of the name association happening daily with two long-standing South Lake Tahoe restaurants: Bert’s Café and Ernie’s Coffee Shop.  

The two restaurants, which are located on Emerald Bay Road less than a quarter mile of each other, are often asked if they are affiliated. And while the restaurants are not directly affiliated, the history between the two is very much intertwined.  


Ernie’s Coffee Shop was established in South Lake Tahoe in 1968. Before settling into its current location, it was previously located in the space that is now occupied by Bert’s Café. Bert’s Café opened its doors in 2002 in the location where Ernie’s Coffee shop now resides. If you’re head is already trying to keep up, just wait, it get’s more complex.  

Frank’s Restaurant, which was established in 1954 by Frank Lyons, was located in the location of current Ernie’s Coffee Shop before being renamed to Bert’s. It was purchased in 2002 by Paul and Judy Bruso, who at the time, also owned Ernie’s Coffee Shop (still at the old location, which is the current Bert’s Café), while under lease for that location.   

“Paul owned the property where Frank’s was and he wanted to develop it into the new location for Ernie’s but was a year or more out to get it off the ground with all the permits,” said Bueno Ketelsen, co-owner of Bert’s Café.  

Bueno and Marty Ketelsen standing in front of the Old Bert’s Cafe before it was leveled.

According to Ketelsen, Bruso had known Frank was retiring and he needed someone experienced and hard working to help take over Frank’s, and ultimately, take over the building lease in the old Ernie’s location while the new location was being built … But first, they needed to rename Frank’s.  

“We thought of a whole variety of names,” said Ketelsen. “Everything from High Mountain Café to Emerald Bay Café, but Bert’s and Ernie’s was pretty much the first to come out.”  

Ketelsen and his wife Marty helped run the Bert’s location for about a year before closing down to allow for the demolition of the old building and construction of the new Ernie’s. During that time, Bert’s was closed for approximately seven months to allow for the building and by Ketelsen’s account, the old Ernie’s closed on November 30, 2003, and opened at the new location December 1, 2003 – never missing a day of operation. The new Bert’s location (formerly Ernie’s) was given a slight remodel and re-opened its doors the third week of December in 2003.  


While you can’t really tell the story of Ernie’s Coffe Shop without the mention of Paul and Judy Bruso, who owned the establishment for about 35 years, the current owners (Kent Baer and brother-in-law Nathan Bergner) purchased the restaurant from the Bruso’s in 2015.  

Baer, who was born in South Lake Tahoe in 1978, was raised around the Bruso family and was quite close with their son from high school.  

Nathan Bergner, left, and Kent Baer when they took over ownership in 2016.
Jack Barnwell | Tahoe Daily Tribune

“It’s surreal for me to look back. I’ve known this restaurant my whole life,” said Baer. “They served the same hamburger we serve here today.” 

As the Brusos were looking to retire, they turned to Baer and Bergner with the opportunity to take over, and ultimately, the two agreed. 

“The lure of knowing the restaurant was part of it, but it really was the trust in the previous owner,” added Baer. “I knew it was going to be good for my family, but it came down to trust and staff longevity and also the relationship with the community. When they bring in hard earned dollars, they know we’re going to treat them with good service and a good product.”   

The Ketelsen’s found their way to Tahoe when Bueno was tabbed to help open the Chart House towards the top of Kingsbury in 1976. After additional stints at Los Tres Hombres, Buenorico’s and Genoa Lakes, the opportunity for Bert’s Café came at the perfect time.  

Nathan Bergner and Kent Baer
Rob Galloway / Tahoe Daily Tribune

“As we were going through that first year, we learned we were good at breakfast,” said Ketelsen. “Not only is it unique, it’s pretty good. That is our business plan: quality. I’ve been in restaurant business my whole life and that’s been my operational motif forever.”  

Even though Ketelsen’s wife Marty has been a part of the restaurant the entire time (whom Ketelsen credits for all their systems and procedures), it wasn’t until about 10 years ago when Ketelsen added a co-owner to the business, his daughter Tracy Phelan.  

Tracy, Bueno and Marty Ketelsen

“Tracy grew up in the restaurant business – always trooping around,” added Ketelsen. “Once she got out of college, she came back and started waitressing and figuring out what to do. She’s been around it forever.”  


It’s not every day you find two family-owned restaurants with similar approaches to food and people, essentially are next door to one another, that are both over 20 years old, and the owners still work day-to-day at the business itself.  

“The fact that we’re here operating hands on is amazing to a lot of people, and maybe even to me,” said Ketelsen.  

And even though Baer doesn’t quite have as long a history with the restaurant, he knew how important the story of family was with the previous owners.   

“Their children worked here. When we started we were told today you start as dishwasher and then did every job. Taking out trash everyday with our employees makes a difference in morale. Longevity of the staff is rare within the restaurant industry, and the town. It’s been a big part of our success and customer base.” 

Ketelsen has a similar approach.  

“We’re proud of what we have. It’s enjoyable to walk up to a table and ask how was everything was and they pat you on the back. It’s things like that makes it all worth while. We have great employees and that’s part of our success.” 

And while the people that make up the uniqueness of each restaurant, part of the success also rests on the shoulders of the food they serve.  

Baer added, “Our regular customers like traditional breakfast but you’ll see a lot of hamburgers served at lunch. Every Wednesday we have a long tradition called Burger Day, where we have low price on burgers, fries, drink and slice of cake or brownie. The whole place fills up at noon for that reason.”  

For Bert’s, you probably can’t ask for a recommendation without mention of their huevos rancheros.  

“I’ve always said we have the best huevos rancheros in the world. We’ve had loyal customers go on vacation and looked for better and haven’t found it,” added Ketelsen.   

While each establishment has their share of dedicated regulars, they also know they have customers that will patron both restaurants – and that’s part of the fun. Sure, they still get the question about their names, the references to the popular characters, and the curiosity on the history, but at the end of the day they embrace the tradition of supporting the community on multiple fronts.  

Baer added, “Busing a table can be very thankless when you do it every day but when you do it around customers that return to you and show appreciation, it can make all the difference in the world. We try hard to return that.” 

Both Bert’s Café and Ernie’s Coffee Shop are located off Emerald Bay Rd. in South Lake Tahoe. For further information on each institution you can reach them at (530-544-3434) and (530-541-2161).  

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