Morton’s in Transition

J&G Steakhouse ribeye, Scottsdale, Ariz.

Last February Landry’s Inc. acquired a steakhouse dear to me, Morton’s of Chicago. And sure enough, 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. Multiple Morton’s locations considered redundant have been closed.

Not that Landry’s is new at this—the company also owns the McCormick & Schmick chain, Oceanaire, and the Golden Nugget casinos. But what works at one location doesn’t always work at another. Specifically, Morton’s downtown clientele are older—many are lawyers and lobbyists (often one and the same). They know what they want on the menu. If their favorite dish is gone or modified, what’s stopping them from patronizing the Palm or the soon-to-be-opened Del Frisco’s? And speaking of the menu (with too many new entrees to mention here), 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. (I imagine the rest of the staff aren’t happy with these changes either—they know not to mess with a good thing.)

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?

Of course this sort of thing isn’t new. A.J. Liebling once wrote about his return to an old Parisian haunt only to find it horribly altered:

The content on the menu … had become Italianized, the spelling had deteriorated, and the prices had diminished to a point where it would be a miracle if the food continued distinguished…. I could not descry anything in the smudged ink but misspelled noodles and unorthographical “escallopinis“; Italians writing in French by ear produce a regression to an unknown ancestor of both languages.

“Try us,” the man pleaded, and, like a fool, I did. I was hungry. Forty minutes later, I stamped out into the street as purple as an aubergine with rage. The minestrone had been cabbage scraps in greasy water. I had chosen côtes d’agneau as the safest item in the mediocre catalogue that the Prospéria’s prospectus of bliss had turned into overnight. They had been cut from a tired billy goat and seared in machine oil, and the haricots verts with which they were served resembled decomposed whiskers from a theatrical-costume beard.

“The same cuisine?” I thundered as I flung my money on the falsified addition that I was too angry to verify. “You take me for a jackass!”

7 thoughts on “Morton’s in Transition”

  1. Oh no, say it isn’t so, Vic. Is nothing sacred? Sigh…

    So, once this abomination is accomplished, where do you recommend someone in the D.C. area go for a true steakhouse experience? (i.e., wood-paneled walls, non-obnoxious music, and a terrific steak.)

    And related to that — is Ray’s the Steaks in Arlington as good as everyone says? (Never been myself.)

  2. I’ve always felt like the appeal of Morton’s was just lost on me. And if it is more about the atmosphere than the food, and they’re changing the atmosphere… prefer BLT, Bourbon Steak, Ray’s.

    Del Frisco’s was great in Houston, but there are just an incredible number of great steakhouses there.

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  4. Okay, I get it, change is inevitable, not always a bad thing, but when you play with a (wo)man’s food you better be darn sure that you can please him or her. Lukewarm food served by a once proud, enthuiastic server now served by a somewhat demoralized staff and has been less then the perfection one expects @ Morton’s. This is NOT the Morton’s of the glory days when Allen J. Bernstein sat at the helm. I wish them all the best of luck, change is a tough achievement in an establishment who’s brand has become senomounous to a Tiffany’s or 4 Seasons.

  5. As a former Morton’s employee and, now, a fairly frequent current diner, I’m more than bothered by the changes. No “thinly sliced smoked salmon,” no menu cart, no after dinner drink tray for the VIPs…. and no Frank! Are you kidding? Ah, but there will be the points-reward system and an unrecognizable menu. Nice. Change is good, but ruining a good thing… Priceless! Good luck Landry’s… you’ll need it!

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