The Morton steak house legacy reimagined in two unique new venues

September 2, 2017 10:17 AM
Steaks, service & showmanship

You might not be aware of it, but chances are good you have experienced Arnold “Arnie” Morton’s take on steak. Fans of Arnie’s steaks know him as a legendary Chicago restaurateur. Morton passed away at the age of 83 in May 2005, but is remembered for changing the face of Chicago’s dining and nightlife scene and defining the great American steakhouse.

“He used to always say ‘the restaurant business is 90% common sense, and 10% a good eye,’” says son David Morton, founder and co-owner of DMK Restaurants. David had a successful run trading his own seat at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange from 1995 through 2002, ultimately running a floor trading and risk arbitrage shop. But his father’s influence on the hospitality industry drew him back toward the family business.

Arnie Morton launched the first Morton’s steakhouse in 1978. Today there are 50 venues from Chicago to Los Angeles to New York to Singapore that continue to entertain as well as serve great food.

Arnie was a showman. Presentation was a critical calculation, but never overshadowed the headline steaks.  

“It’s always easiest to start by buying the highest quality [steak],” says David. “My father always thought that a great steak should only require a fork and a knife. He never found a sauce that tastes better than a great steak cooked perfectly.”

Morton also didn’t believe in salt and pepper. Morton steaks were cooked fast on high heat.

Morton’s partnerships at Playboy (joining Hugh Hefner and Victor Lownes to start the first Playboy Club in 1960) grew his reputation as a Chicago restaurateur to a world renowned operator. Morton, the son of a Hyde Park restaurant owner, grew his seven-restaurant steakhouse chain from a single spot on Chicago’s Gold Coast in the 1950s to 10 locations, which he eventually sold in 1989.

“Dad was a great visionary and inspiring leader, says David. “I loved watching him work with his teams to imagine, plan and execute memorable dining experiences.”

As VP of Playboy International, Morton built every club around the world until his departure in 1972. He opened several restaurants and nightclubs in Chicago before opening the first Morton’s, which would serve as the prototype for the Morton’s of Chicago chain.

“He taught me that 90% of restaurants fail before they ever open. This is true for any business. He also taught me the value of a work ethic and gave me the gift of loving the work,” David says.

The first Morton’s opened in a basement in 1978 and was tastefully decorated with pewter pig lamps on the tables and photos of local personalities lining the walls. The restaurant featured prime aged steaks, with only a visual cart-style menu and a personal greeting by the owner.

“You have to connect with guests on an emotional level, brand loyalty is so important,” says David. “In addition to great food, served with maniacal consistency, great music and lighting, the real key is people.”

Daughter, Amy Morton, recalls her dad’s  advice to always give the guest what they want. “Always say ‘yes’ and remember that you are in the hospitality business.”

Amy forged her own path in the family legacy. Her first efforts were Mirador, a “chic bistro” (Food&Wine), and the Blue Room, a late-night lounge. After retreating to raise three daughters, Amy returned to her restaurant roots in 2012 with the critically-acclaimed opening of Found Kitchen and Social House in Evanston, just outside of Chicago.

“My father wasn’t really caught up in the etiquette of fine dining, presentation needed to fit the concept,” Amy says. She lists off a few additional tips like: Get the food out hot, make sure they always have a drink in hand and don’t drop the ball when it’s time for dessert and coffee because that is the last impression you make on your guests.

“Working with my father was magical;  every night was like a Broadway show,” she says. “We would get the room set and he would unlock the front door and say, ‘It’s show time!’ God I loved that man.”

A patriarch in every sense, he was survived by his wife, Zorine, along with seven children: Sons Michael, David and Peter; and daughters Pam, Stephanie, Amy and Debra.

Almost all of the Morton children followed in their father’s footsteps. Among them they have opened dozens of successful and innovative restaurants and bars. Michael launched the N9NE steakhouses, Peter Morton, co-founder of the Hard Rock Cafe chain owned and operated the famed Morton’s in LA, the high-end celebrity hangout made famous as the site of the annual Vanity Fair Oscar party.

Michael and David opened MB Steak (standing for My Brothers) in Las Vegas’s Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in May. The brothers view their beef-centric spot as an honor to the family’s longstanding steakhouse tradition and their showman dad. 

David and Michael follow the Morton tradition — “It’s all about the people.”

“People eat with their eyes first and discern value before the first bite,” David says. “In the eye of guests, your front line staff is the brand. I always tell my teams, if you don’t spend all of your time training, then you’ll spend all of your time training.”

David and Michael have more than a dozen restaurants and bars between them, but MB Steak is the first partnership of Morton siblings.

MB Steak breaks the steakhouse mold by introducing first-of-its kind dining experiences, including a Private Bar Room tucked behind the lounge available for the most private of diners.  

The first floor features an explosion of custom millwork, rich fabrics and contemporary art commissioned by David and Michael Morton specifically for the venue.  

The second floor Garden Lounge is a unique experience with living walls opening to the outdoors and offering dazzling views of the Las Vegas Strip.

Chef Patrick Munster hails from among the most successful steakhouses in the world including SW at the Wynn, where he was Chef de Cuisine for nearly a decade prior to joining the culinary team at MB Steak.  

“At my restaurants, we first address the combinations of flavors that a guest discovers on each part of the plate, then we look at plate coverage,” David says. “You don’t have to choose between fine dining and fun. Fine dining should be both, which is often overlooked.”

This past November, Amy Morton, opened “The Barn,” her acclaimed “meat-centric hide-a-way” in a 19th Century brick stable as her own personal homage to her father. This modern-meaterie is a departure from the traditional beef-centric houses — a throw-back to a classic styled steakhouse in an intimate setting with table-side cart service.

Underscoring her father’s lessons about quality, Amy notes having “researched dozens of cuts and purveyors prior to selecting our Prime Heritage Angus Beef. Meats by Lintz is a fourth generation family-owned meat vendor committed to changing the way beef is raised; they supply us with the finest cuts available nationwide and they are only an hour away in Indiana.”

The Barn deservingly opened up to rave reviews. Chicago Tribune veteran food critic Phil Vettel proclaims, “The Barn does ‘throwback’ right,” and the Chicago Reader simply ponders, “How can you not love this spot?”

Despite the praise, Amy sticks to the customer-centric model passed on from her father. She says most next-generation restaurant folk have a tough time with guest feedback — “they take it as criticism,” she says. That is truly one of the greatest gifts my dad gave me; knowing it was an opportunity to hear guest feedback as it gives us a chance to address the issue for the next guest,” she says.  

About the Author

Tamarah Webb is the associate editor for Modern Trader magazine and She was born in Hawaii and has moved numerous times being privileged to live in places around the world through the military. Tamarah is a recent journalism alumna of Columbia College Chicago where she minored in cultural studies.