“Hi, I’m Johnny.”
It’s a phrase that Johnny O’Donnell utters hundreds of times every night from behind the bar. With one hand ready for a firm shake and the other serving up a cocktail, O’Donnell has been making friends and drinks in Las Vegas since he started bartending for The Palm Restaurant in The Forum Shops at Caesars in 1996. Today, he is a partner with Michael and Jenna Morton in Morton Group’s restaurant ventures, including La Comida Downtown, where he is often behind the bar.
For O’Donnell, who was recognized as Bartender of the Year by the Nevada Restaurant Association in 2010, everything he’s accomplished thus far is the result of having fun. “I’m not a mixologist,” he says. “I’m a funologist.”
True to his self-proclaimed title, when I meet him in the bar at La Comida, the first thing O’Donnell says is, “Let’s have some fun here,” as he whips up a margarita. This devotion to good times could spring from his Irish genes. O’Donnell was born and raised in Ireland. When he was 10, his parents moved the family from Dublin to the country and purchased a local pub, which they renamed O’Donnell’s. “I was cleaning the bar every morning before school and maybe taking a sip of Guinness, but only on Fridays,” he jokes. After selling the pub, his parents bought a wholesale fish operation, giving O’Donnell another taste of the restaurant business. But his first experience with gratuities was as an altar boy working weddings and funerals. Inspired by the good times he had meeting people and earning tips, he ended up attending the Dublin College of Catering and majoring in hospitality management.
In the ’80s, O’Donnell managed restaurants in London before following his parents and siblings to New York in the early ’90s. After a couple of years in New York, a friend became a manager at The Palm at Caesars and hired him as a lunchtime bartender. He first met Michael Morton when he became a bartender at N9NE Steakhouse at Palms Casino Resort in 2002. In May 2013, they partnered to open La Comida, and now, O’Donnell is involved with the bar operations of every Morton Group restaurant. But, the relationship is not all about margins and bottom lines: “We’re a family, too,” he says.
As a bartender, O’Donnell’s approach is motivated by his desire to create a memorable experience for every person who sits down on that stool. He sends ride-sharing services to people’s front doors to drive them out for a night of drinks. He even plays matchmaker. “I’ve received several wedding invitations from people I introduced to each other,” he says.
O’Donnell appreciates creative cocktails and fresh ingredients. At La Comida, he recommends the blood orange or spicy cucumber margarita, but he also doesn’t mind keeping things simple. He’s inspired by his own take on a night of drinking, or what he calls a “horses for courses” philosophy. It means keeping true to the venue. “When I’m at Atomic, I will order a whiskey drink,” he says. If he’s having a steak, he orders a vodka martini and some wine, but when he’s at Rí Rá (which he certifies as a legitimate Irish pub), there are no martinis, only pints of Guinness, Irish jigs and the occasional Thin Lizzy karaoke. “Whiskey in the Jar” is his song, apropos for a bartender.
Foremost, O’Donnell is the bartender that will remember your name and your stories. And, he will share his stories, too. He may pull up the video of him having a drink with fellow Irelander Conor McGregor or of him driving a big white van in the motorcade for President Obama or even of him singing with “Pat” from Train. He marvels at how good Las Vegas has been to him: “When I was waking up as a kid at 4 a.m. in the morning, freezing in my bed in Ireland, I never thought I’d end up here. It’s pretty good for an Irish kid, right?”