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Nevada’s last epicurean emperors

By ThisIsReno

Submitted by Dave Preston

This story is about the end of a golden era in Reno dining and the people who brought joy to so many with their impeccable service and skills for more than four decades

As the sun bows to the Carson range in northern Nevada and the etoilé of the neon galaxy welcomes the night, regal attire is dawned, and once again, it’s showtime.  The last of the Epicurean Emperors make ready to hold court in their catacomb empire, providing their followers with the most fabulous gastronomic experience of one’s life. These masters of food artistry have the wisdom and hospitality craftsmanship of more than 300 years of combined performance, providing unforgettable palate memories to thousands with table-side mystique. It is done with love, entered into with unbridled abandon, as it should be.

“It was overwhelming; I literally took a step back…the décor was so amazing and everything I saw, from the room’s ambiance to the pastry cart to the dishes and glassware, it was the gold standard,” said Tony Belancio, who spent 39 years there.  The room has subtle lighting giving it that old school nightclub feel, with burgundy leather booths along the perimeter, tables with high-quality white linen and mid-back leather chairs, and plush carpet pattern–timeless from the seventies.  The bar on the right as you enter is dark wood and an in-wall wine Cuvée jets into the small cocktail lounge area.  The ceiling appears low, but that is an effect of the brownish color. It is a room for the ages.

Harrah’s rings in 2019. Image: Ty O’Neil

The dean of the magnificent eight, and a 46-year veteran of the room, is Bong Genio, born in the Philippines and arrived in Reno in 1973.  He started as a busboy and, for the past 35 years, has been a Captain with loyal customers from literally around the world who come to experience his service. 

At 5’ 1”, he says, “When I first meet a guest, I introduce myself as Bong, James Bong and that always gets a good laugh, and then I have made a connection.  I was a junior waiter when Bill Harrah would come in, and he did scare me a little.  After all, it was Bill Harrah, the guy with his name on the building, but he was always nice to everyone.  He had his private dining room and wasn’t in the main restaurant.  

“It was a very plush room with special shell-made placemats and very high-end plates and glassware, and there was a little pad with buttons he could push that would summon the chef or his waiter.  In the early days of the room, you really couldn’t make a reservation.  It was for high-rollers and VIPs.  I remember when I opened a bank account, and they asked where I worked, and I told them Harrah’s. The banker was in awe and asked how someone could get a chance to eat there.  It was a very special place for sure,” Bong remembered.

And then there was Tommy Loonkaw, born in Thailand, who also started as a busboy and worked his way up to Captain in his 39 years working the room. “I was looking for a job, but little did I realize when I started that this would become my home and these servers, my family.” 

Karla Interiano, a junior member with just 26 years under her belt, has been one of only two women Captains in the history of the Steakhouse.

“The guys were always there for me; they taught me and helped me grow and never treated me like anything other than one of them,” she said. “I remember over the years serving people like Sean Penn and Jack Nicholson. It was so exciting.  I love to make Steak Diane with the brandy and heavy cream and the flambee that put that amazing nutty, savory aroma in the air.”

Of course, this culinary ship-of-state needed a master navigator, and Michael Kerivan, for 31 years, had meticulously guided the room, as Maître D’ extraordinaire, to acclaim and awards and to the prominence it enjoys worldwide today.  When George Bernard Shaw said, “There is no sincerer love than the love of food,” it’s clear that Michael is the personification of that idiom.

“I have made over 375,000 Caesar salads in my career serving notables from all walks of life,” he said. “In fact, it has become my signature, and I have the recipe printed on the back of my business cards.  It’s a process: garlic and anchovies mashed together to make it into a paste and squeeze a little lemon over the top.  The secret is to create three piles, the paste, a tablespoon of Dijon mustard, and egg yolk.  I add a dash of Tabasco and some Worcestershire sauce and a tablespoon of red wine vinegar, then with two forks whip everything together to create an emulsion, add the Romaine lettuce, a spoon of Parmesan cheese for each table guest, and one for the bowl.” And behold the iconic palate masterpiece!

Showgirls, such as these, were a part of the glitz and glam of vintage Harrah’s Reno. Image: Ty O’Neil

Ozzie Cabrara, a Havana-born 31-year veteran, remembers how grand the room was with elegant, classy, well-dressed people who created an atmosphere that spewed the tradition that was fine dining. 

“Things were simpler then, and people were not in a big hurry; they knew how to enjoy life and great food,” the ever-animated Captain recants.  “You always want to have something special for your special guests, something that wasn’t on the menu.” 

Ozzie created the Absolut Raspberry Prawns, an upgrade from the Dijon prawn from his days at the MGM.  “It all started with the first infused vodkas, and Michael asked me to come up with an appetizer.  You melt butter and add shallots, butter, Dijon mustard, cream, red bell pepper, sweet basil, toss in the prawns, simmer, add the vodka and flambee,” this table-side titan explained.  The savory, sweet smell permeates the air around the table, and your mouth truly waters.  

Another immigrant from the Philippines, Arland Pabico, who spent 44 years at the property, was a busser and moved his way up to Captain and Assistant Maître D’.  He remembers how the room evolved, and table-side service became the signature of the Steakhouse whose motto is…The Steakhouse that other steakhouses aspire to be.  He recalls, “this has always been a special place, and people come for those special occasions.  I remember when Michael introduced the ‘signature plates’ with a chocolate script wishing someone a happy birthday or happy anniversary.  It was so special, and everyone appreciated the elegance and effort to serve our guest.”  

She is the lady in the catbird seat, the barkeep amazing, and mixologist superb, Jackie Smith.  Her tenure with the company was 43 years, the last 16 in the Steakhouse. 

“I see everything and everybody,” she proclaimed. “I journal each evening in my mind and watch the people.  And over the years, I’ve seen the change.  My mother loved to come here, and on my days off, we would take that busman’s holiday and dine in the regal kingdom in the basement.  I would see Bill Harrah when I worked in the Seafarer Bar and recall the generosity of Sammy Davis Jr. when he’d throw a party for the cast and crew of his show when it closed; it was quite a spread!  And once he rented a movie theater and took everyone to the show.  What a wonderful gentleman,” she recalled with a glimmer in her eye.

No evening at the Steakhouse would be complete without a Coffee Diablo, and Tony Belancio has YouTube fame with his Dantesque approach to the flaming libation. 

“The technique is with the fires…don’t rush it.  You move with deliberate and graceful motion.  There’s a lot going on, and it creates a big visual,” he advised. “You get a fire going under your caldron, add the seasonings–cloves, coriander, cinnamon sticks–then you pour in the alcohol.”

Tony says it’s a balance, with two orange liquors–Grand Marnier and Cointreau—and a brandy. “You take both an orange and lemon and, with a singular motion, with reactionary precision from years of doing it, create two singular strands of the fruit rind.  Then, you carve in a circular motion, parting the flesh from the fruit and place rivets of fresh cloves into the hanging flesh. 

“By then, your alcohol has reached temperature… you put a flame to the bath of the boozes and with a ladle pour the flaming concoction from the top of the rind and slowly and methodically drizzle it down the fruit into a pool of orangish flavor libation in a great and spectacular fiery cascade. We will dim the lights to gain the optic of Dante’s flame and add, of course, some coffee,” the maestro of this syncopation of divine drink verbalizes. 

There are also the flaming Bananas Foster with its Dom Perignon stars of floating cinnamon lighting the ceiling of the room. And Karla has her Calvados Apples and Bong and his Peach Melba, all on the secret menu reserved for the loyal.  These spectacles bring the room to silence, and spontaneous applause often follows. And the tuxedo-clad emperors will continue to hold court over the epicurean comers for it is their duty, their ability, their passion. 

And as I sit at my favorite stool at the end of the bar gazing into their empire of gastronomic magic, the words that Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Edward Albee put in the mouth of his iconic character Virginia Woolf come to mind…“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” I’m sure his literary mind, when he scribed that, was thinking of Harrah’s Steakhouse in Reno, Nevada.

Harrah’s Steakhouse operated for 52 years inside Harrah’s Hotel and Casino in downtown Reno. The fine dining room closed in early 2020 after sale of the property was announced. Harrah’s Reno closed for good on March 17, 2020. The restaurant space, which was located below street level, will be repurposed into underground storage, according to a report in the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Dave Preston has been part of the Nevada media scene for 20 years as Nevada’s Guru of the Goodlife. He has been a food and wine writer for more than 40 years and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Chefs and a Sommelier. He is a multi-award-winning journalist with more than 1000 published articles and columns. He hosts Weekend Magazine of KOH NewsTalk 780 Saturday mornings at 11AM.

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