Las Vegas has a reputation as being a transient city. But for many, once this city gets ahold of you, it’s a tough habit to kick. Chef Geno Bernardo is one of those who tried to get away for a while, to no avail. Thankfully, he’s finally back where he belongs.
Bernardo is a self-taught chef raised on the East Coast who was working at a sushi spot near San Diego in 2003 when he met the Palms’ then-owner George Maloof and N9NE Group executives Michael Kornick, Michael Morton and Scott DeGraff. The quartet was impressed with some of the Italian touches he was putting into his Japanese cuisine and began discussing bringing Bernardo to Morongo, a new Native American casino they were planning outside of Palm Springs. The resort’s Italian restaurant could serve as a proving ground for a rooftop restaurant they were planning for their upcoming Fantasy tower at the Palms.
Bernardo wasn’t immediately sold, but an old friend convinced him to give it a try. “I blew it off at first,” the chef says. “I was like, ‘Dude, I’m living in San Diego.’ But I happened to know [N9NE Steakhouse chef] Barry Dakake from Rhode Island. Close friends of ours reached out to me, so I flew out to Vegas and did a tasting.”
It was a hit, and after some time at Morongo, Bernardo finally made the move to Las Vegas to open Nove Italiano in 2005. The Palms was at the top of its celebrity-driven game. While Dakake was holding court in the VIP-filled N9NE Steakhouse, which has long been a go-to spot for A-listers, Bernardo was providing the same caliber of guests a more private experience (and a far better view), upstairs at Nove.
“It was a disconnect in Las Vegas to have a restaurant 51 floors up,” Bernardo says. “But the same people [who dined at N9NE] would come up when they didn’t want to be seen. It was like a party every night at the Palms back then.”
But in Las Vegas, no hot spot remains cool forever, and as the Palms lost a bit of its star power, the chef saw other things changing in the resort as well. “When George lost the hotel,” he says, “I just didn’t feel like it was ‘the N9NE Group and George Maloof’ anymore. I enjoyed it still, but I just didn’t feel that vibe. We had that family chemistry, and George was a great leader, friend and mentor. And when he left, it just kind of, in my heart, fizzled away. And it was time for me to pack up and move.”
But where do you go after you’ve presided over one of the coolest restaurants in one of the coolest resorts in one of the coolest cities in the world? Bernardo’s first thought was to return to his East Coast roots, so he took a job in Manhattan with renowned chef David Burke. But he says he couldn’t adapt to the pace of the Big Apple. “It was a different beast,” he says. “I thought I was ready and wanted to move back, but after nine months, a year, I didn’t enjoy it anymore.”
So the chef traded the crowded, sweaty subways of New York for the sun and fun of Mexico in 2012, at a Cabo San Lucas resort called El Dorado that made even the Palms look subdued. “They flew me down there and rolled out the red carpet. I got picked up in a big Escalade. And I was just blown away. The gates open, and it was one of the best resorts in the world. It’s all high-end homes, anywhere from $5 million to $40 million homes.”
He was immediately sold. The El Dorado sent him an offer, and within two weeks he was cooking for celebrities including George Strait, George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tim Allen, Sam Nazarian and others—often in the stars’ homes. During his spare time, Bernardo took up spear fishing and traveled throughout Mexico. But, he says, he couldn’t escape one thing: “I missed Sin City.”
Bernardo’s original plan for his return to Las Vegas was to open his own restaurant, and while his first attempt—which got as far as securing a spot near UNLV—didn’t work out, he’s still looking. In the meantime, he’s taking over the reins at celebrity chef Brian Malarkey’s new Aria restaurant Herringbone, which is set to open December 28. And whatever else Las Vegas may have in store for him, the plan is to stay here awhile. “Vegas is my home. You live here for so long, and when you leave, you want to come back.”
Seven Things to Expect From Herringbone
• There will be no herring on the menu—either with or without bones.
• Since Brian Malarkey is originally from a farm in Oregon, he’s asked Bernardo to offer a true down-home steak: an 18-ounce dry-aged ribeye.
• At nearly 10,500 square feet, Herringbone will be more than double the size of Gold Lounge, which it replaces.
• The restaurant will feature outdoor space.
• Bernardo’s famed Nove Spaghetti will appear on the Herringbone menu, renamed “seafood pasta.”
• If you’re a fan of raw fish, expect three varieties of crudo.
• Bernardo will once again embrace the farm-to-table ideal by purchasing food from growers in Pahrump, including Grow Smart and Prime Time Farms.