Power & Money

Is Morton’s Heading Downhill?

That’s the claim made by Victorino Matus, an editor at The Weekly Standard who also has a considerable food blog. The iconic steakhouse chain, born in Chicago via Arnie Morton, the former manager of the Playboy Clubs, but under corporate ownership for some years now, was acquired by Landry’s Inc., which also owns McCormick & Schmick’s (not to mention Rainforest Cafe), in a deal announced in December. And now Matus says that Landry’s likes Morton’s so much they want to change everything about it:

…Changes are afoot. There is no prime rib special on Thursdays. The cheesecake no longer comes from the S&S; Bakery in the Bronx. The key lime pie is gone from the Prime Lunch Specials. They’ve ceased offering complimentary cordials after a big dinner. The butter is no longer a thick square but rather a wavy garnish. The plates are now square. In a few months, the downtown D.C. location will shut down for renovations, in which the dark-wood paneling will be replaced with black and silver.

Honestly, big corporations are worse than girlfriends of drug users when it comes to falling in love with something and then thinking they can get it to change. Of course, part of the point of buying a steakhouse chain is thinking that you can improve it in some way through your own operational genius. But too often that means some kind of regression to the mean— which McCormick & Schmick’s embodies perfectly.

Morton’s at its most successful has a perception of being a genuine power broker place— remember that the pseudonymous inside-Hollywood columnist Celia Brady in Spy ended every column with “See you Monday night at Morton’s,” to make studio bigshots paranoid over which of their fellow steak-eaters was spilling the beans. And Matus makes a case that the owners of Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. are diluting the essence of that big-balled power-broker aura:

The chefs looked beleaguered. A warm steak salad recently arrived lukewarm. A bacon-loaded cheeseburger was missing cheese. A lunch ribeye was served raw—but was promptly remedied… As Bloomberg reported, “[Landry’s owner Tilman J. Fertitta is] also tweaking the ambiance—hipper music, new uniforms—in an attempt to attract a younger crowd. ‘It’s not going to be your daddy’s steakhouse,’ said Fertitta, whose drawl betrays his Galveston, Texas, upbringing.” How many of D.C.’s powerbrokers are comprised of “a younger crowd”? And maybe the younger patrons are actually in search of “your daddy’s steakhouse,” with Sinatra playing in the background and not Nicki Minaj?

On the other hand, many a tired old place has gone under because everyone thought it would be there forever but nobody went there any more. (Hollywood apparently no longer goes to Morton’s the way it did, for one.) But there’s some point where Morton’s isn’t going to be Morton’s any more. Has anyone observed changes, and what was your reaction? [vicmatus.com]

Is Morton’s Heading Downhill?