Licensee Interview: Dario Bernardi, Living The Dream

By Nicola Walker

Dario Bernardi, the man behind a variety of Glasgow’s bars, clubs and restaurants is a joy to talk to and his enthusiasm for what he does is immediately apparent.

FD054B9D-3FDC-4464-8FF8-A0773F860B3EI met him at one of his most popular venues, Max’s Bar, which has recently received a barrage of publicity courtesy of its Banksy endorsed cocktail.

Max’s, and his basement La Cheetah Club, have been a huge part of Glasgow’s nightlife for 14 years, and Dario’s company, Allied Leisure Group, also owns Japanese restaurant Mikaku in Queen Street, Room 2 in Nelson Mandela Place and a new soft play in Paisley called Furry Murrys Adventure Playground. He even has his own television production company, Immersive TV, which launched during the pandemic.

Dario has been in hospitality since the tender age of 13 – when he DJ’d in Archaos during the 90s. Music remains his passion and it was instilled in him by his father who was a musician and his mother who was a dancer. “It’s in my blood,” says Dario. “I got my first gig at Archaos when David Fleming, now the owner of Kitty’s, was the manager.  He gave me a gig at the under 18’s night and I got the job due to my technical ability. By the age of 20 I was DJing with the likes of Roger Sanchez and Boy George.”

Dario then started to branch out and put his mind to promoting other hospitality businesses. He explains, “I did some work for Bar Gaudi on Blythswood Street in 2001. I DJ’d there and also booked DJs that would bring in the crowds. At that point Silicone Soul had just brought out ‘Right On Right On’, it was number one in the charts, and they were mates of mine, so I persuaded them to come to Bar Gaudi.

“The venue only held 20/30 people, but the night that they played the queue was right up the street, there were even people in the kitchen! It was mental, but a total success!”

Dario managed to get other clients onboard such as Mama San, St Judes, Ad Lib, Pivo Pivo and the Metropolitan Bar. He tells me, “I took the DJs I knew to these venues, and they became busy. So, it worked out for everybody.”

Dario Bernardi

In 2009 Max’s and La Cheetah Club were born. He says “I had been running places for other people, and I wanted my own place.  The lease for Max’s came up, it used to be the Rock Garden, and I knew it well because I used to drink there. “I ended up taking it on myself.

I stopped promoting other people and said to all the DJs to come to my venue, and they did. It was a huge success. Initially we were only opening the bar upstairs till 11pm, despite having a 3am license. I just didn’t have much interest in the bar as my background was in the club events. But then we started concentrating on the bar too.” “It just got busier and busier and now we are open seven nights a week till 3am.”

Over the last 10 years La Cheetah Clubs reputation has also grown. It has been nominated as one of the top clubs in the world by the likes of Resident Advisor, DJ Mag and Mixmag. Dario is very proud, “It’s a venue that holds 150 people and has got DJs performing that would be charging £10K an hour to play at a festival, but they want to play here.”

The success for La Cheetah Club and Max’s has allowed Dario to open other venues too. Dario originally dipped his toe into the Japanese scene with a former business partner, and when they went their separate ways in 2019, he launched Mikaku in the same unit.

Dario tells me, “Food critic Jay Raynor came in and wrote in his Guardian column that the food was amazing. The next thing you know, the queue was down the street, but the staff couldn’t handle the numbers in that size of venue.  I decided to shut the doors, because I knew we were moving to bigger premises, and I didn’t want any adverse impact on my new venue.  In the new Mikaku the kitchen was bigger and there was more seating.”

42DC41DB-8719-4837-821E-F4A7BEE10DADAlthough it took longer than he expected to get it open because of the pandemic, Dario used the time to refurbish the venue, and when it reopened people loved it.

It was also in 2019 that he leased Room 2, a multifunctional event space in Nelson Mandela place. The venue is now incredibly popular, with bands, comedy events, club nights and even burlesque, but it was a slow start, and then Covid hit.

But the ever-pragmatic Dario diversified and saw an opportunity to  launch his own television company, ‘Immersive TV’. He explains, “Basically, I came up with the idea in a dream. It was a vehicle for entertainment under the restrictions and it brought live events into your living room.

“Room 2 turned into a green screen studio with a massive 15 metre by two metre screen in a semi-circle which the audience were visible on. We sold 1,000’s of tickets.  It was an interactive TV show so that everyone on the screen could speak to the comedians. You could even hear the laughter. It kept a lot of folk in work that weren’t getting paid otherwise.”

Dario is clearly a very productive businessman with multiple venues and businesses over the years. He says, “I’ve been lucky with the venues, because I have a small group, and it’s all based around the same clientele. I’ve not tried to expand into other worlds, as I don’t want it to become diluted. The more places you open, the more you just end up sitting behind a desk, and that’s not what I do this for.”

But he has branched out recently with the opening of a soft play business, Furry Murry’s Adventure Playground, in the site of the old Fury Murrays nightclub in Paisley. Dario had originally bought this unit from James Mortimer in 2017 to run as club, but things didn’t work out, and it started losing money. He says, “We just shut the doors and Covid allowed me time to think about what I was going to do with it. We already had a soft play area in Mikaku, the concept worked well, and we already had the contacts. My partner, Caroline, who is a social worker, worked with me on it.”

2C3C06A1-F7F7-447C-B03A-FC287971502FNo doubt the fact that they also have three kids, two of which are under three, helped focus him on the idea of soft play! He has brought his hospitality credentials to the fore here too. He says, “It’s a little bit different as we have an actual restaurant in it with fresh food and barista coffee. I’ve obviously never owned a soft play, but business is business at the end of the day. We did have to consider all the legalities of the soft play, but I loved learning about all the new things.”

Of course, we also had to talk about Dario’s link up with Banksy, which was a pure piece of luck. Dario smiles, “Banksy and his team were in the Modern Art Gallery for months but because it was a secret, they weren’t allowed to leave. All they had to drink was Irn Bru and a bottle of tequila, so they decided to do an Irn Bru Margarita as part of the show. A member of his team came in and said Banksy wanted the drink to be from here. He had apparently been in at some point and loved the bar. Honestly, I thought it was a joke!

“It did give us a big challenge as Irn Bru and Tequila together is brutal. We went through processes of reducing the Irn Bru to make a concentrated syrup and eventually created our secret recipe which, although I say so myself, tastes great!

“Banksy is quoted as saying the traffic cone on the Duke of Wellington statue is one of the most important pieces of artwork in the UK, so we had to put a traffic cone on it as a nod to that. So, we got a Banksy endorsed cocktail, marketed by him worldwide – it was huge!”

The next few months will be busy too. There is a new Mexican food offering launching in Max’s this month to tie in with its Banksy Margarita. Plus, he has some great plans in place for up-and-coming projects. He tells me, “We are opening a deli called Sozo, which is a subsidiary of Mikaku, with different colours and flavours of dumplings that you can cook at home. We will also sell jars of our sauces that we use in the restaurant, and even gift boxes.

“It’s not necessarily about expanding and making the company bigger. It’s about making the ones that I’ve got better and making sure each one has its own identity.”

He concludes, “I love music and I love running pubs but what I love the most, surprisingly, is the construction – coming up with the idea of designing the venue, physically building the concepts, and then opening the doors. I’ve managed to get the perfect job for myself.”

He has certainly done that.