It would be an exaggeration to call the Mortons (Arnie, Peter and Pam) the Barrymores of the American culinary scene. But it wouldn't be that big an exaggeration.
In the style of the Barrymores, the Mortons are very theatrical and very much larger than life. And in much the same way that the Barrymores deeply affected the state of stage craft and the style of the movies during the height of their powers back in the '30s, the Mortons have affected the restaurant business in the waning days of the 20th century. For this is the family whose members have created such culinary icons as Morton's of Chicago, a chain steakhouse of surpassing quality; the Hard Rock Cafe, the model for just about every theme restaurant to open over the past two decades; and Morton's, for two decades now the quintessential Hollywood celebrity watering hole.
The Mortons are, in short, one of the prime restaurant dynasties of the last quarter century. The way their family eats has become the way America eats.
The family's involvement with food and beverage service began in the years before Prohibition with a saloon run by the great-grandfather of siblings Peter and Pam Morton. The Mortons shifted into high gear in the 1930s, according to Pam Morton, who manages Morton's in West Hollywood.
"As I recall," she says, sitting in the sunlight that floods in through the windows at Morton's in the hours between the agents who lunch and the stars who dine, "My grandfather started the first Morton's in Chicago, in Hyde Park. Then, he moved the restaurant to Lake Shore Drive near the University of Chicago. It wasn't a steakhouse. It was an upscale family restaurant, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He thought of it as fine dining for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I grew up in the restaurant. My parents were divorced, but I'd spend the summers in Chicago with my grandparents."
The family name was not originally Morton. "My grandfather's name was Morton Cohen. When he opened his restaurant he didn't want to call it "Cohen's." So he changed his name to Morton C. Morton. I remember being able to go in anytime I wanted and eat anything at all. But it never seemed that special to me at the time...It wasn't until years later that I became part of the family restaurants."
Great-grandfather and grandfather may have gotten the family started in the restaurant business. But it was Pam's father Arnie J. Morton who put the family on the culinary map. He grew up working in his father's eatery and e opened his first restaurant, called The Walton Walk on Chicago's North Side in 1956. In 1959, he was hired by Hugh Hefner to create what became one of the primary icons of the zeitgeist.
"He asked me to bring the magazine to life," Morton said.
For the next 14 years, he did just that, opening branches of the Playboy Club around the world, finally selling his 25 percent stake in the clubs in 1973, to open a steakhouse he called Arnie's just off Rush Street.
His idea for Arnie's was to create a "comfortable saloon." It turned out to be so comfortable, and so popular, that in 1978, he opened his first branch of Morton's in Chicago. Branches followed in Philadelphia, Washington, Denver, Atlanta and Dallas.
Not long after, Business Week tried to define the success of the Morton's chain, writing, "Want to know Chicago restaurateur Arnie Morton's secret recipe? Take one dark, noisy room, deprive customers of a menu, serve giant steaks and chops, and charge extravagant prices...It's not haute cuisine, but it works."
It worked so well that Arnie Morton was able to sell his seven restaurants in 1989 to the Quantum Restaurant Group, which turned the chain into a worldwide phenomenon (there are more than 40 branches stretching from Cleveland to Singapore).
They've also turned the restaurants into a business that's borrowed much from the world of fast-food (current owner Allen J. Bernstein operated 17 Wendy's in the New York area). As the New York Times put it in a 1996, headline "A Big Mac Strategy at Porterhouse Prices: Morton's Learns Lessons of Fast Food." All in all, a far cry from the hands-on style of founder Arnie Morton.
At the same time Morton's steakhouse was growing, son Peter Morton was changing the way America perceived restaurants with a chain that's become a totem for gestalt dining. That is to say, the sort of evening where the experience overwhelms the food. Not that the food doesn't count.
"It probably was better than it had to be," Peter Morton said. "But I have certain high standards, which I maintain no matter what."
It was back in 1970 that Peter, then 22, was living in swinging London, that he decided to get into the family industry. He had worked in the family restaurants since the age of 10 gone to the University of Denver, where he earned a bachelor's degree in business administration.
Borrowing $25,000 from his father, Morton opened the Great American Disaster in London. Initially, he thought he was just opening a good place for visiting Americans to get a hamburger. What he wound up doing was introducing the various joys of American food to England and Europe. He likes to point out that, "I beat McDonald's."
Within a year, the Great American Disaster made way for the first Hard Rock Cafe, which Peter opened (along with partner Isaac Tigrett) in a former Rolls Royce showroom in Mayfair.
"First we introduced American food to Europe. And then, we decided to introduce American food to Americans in America - chicken that tastes like chicken, chili that tastes like chili, apple pie that tastes like apple pie," he said. "We stuck with American food when it wasn't in vogue. And that made the Hard Rock an American institution."
In 1979, Peter opened Morton's in West Hollywood, where he eventually placed his sister Pam as manager. In 1982, he opened the first Hard Rock Caf & #233; in the United States, with backing provided by many of the regulars at Morton's Steven Spielberg and Barry Diller among them. In 1990, the Rank Group began its acquisition of the various Hard Rocks, first buying out Isaac Tigrett (who had the rights to the Hard Rocks on the East Coast and in Europe), then Peter Morton (who owned the Hard Rocks on the West Coast).
Now, there are more than 100 Hard Rock Cafes in 33 countries around the world. But the only one that really matters to Peter Morton is his Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, which opened in 1996, and which once again has redefined a genre , the first Las Vegas casino to be Gen-X friendly. Instead of being skewed toward the Rat Pack, it's skewed towards the Brat Pack, a place rockers go for Ben E. King, not Benny Goodman.
The Morton family has gone from Chicago saloon to Las Vegas casino in three generations. But the culinary line stops here. At least, it does if Pam Morton has anything to say about it. She says she has no intention for her pre-teen daughter to go into the restaurant business.
"She can do anything she wants," says Pam. "It's time for the next generation to move on from the family business. Though she can get a reservation here anytime she wants."
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