Arnie Morton, 83; He Worked the Room at His ‘Steakhouses for the Rich’
Arnie Morton, the Chicago restaurateur who gave his style and his name to Arnie’s and Morton’s steakhouses, which now have about 65 venues from Singapore to Los Angeles to New York, has died. He was 83.
Morton, who sold the seven-restaurant steakhouse chain in 1987, died Saturday in a care facility in Deerfield, Ill. He had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.
A native of Chicago, Morton was born to his profession as the son of a Hyde Park restaurateur. He opened his first restaurant, Walton Walk, near Michigan Avenue in the 1950s. In 1960, he joined Hugh Hefner and Victor Lownes to start the first Playboy Club.
Morton stayed with Playboy as head of food services for a decade, helping to pioneer a new trend of combining good food and drink with stylish decor and merchandising -- selling drink glasses and other items with the Playboy bunny symbol.
Morton then opened several clubs on Chicago’s State Street before starting Arnie’s in the early 1970s. That restaurant closed on New Year’s Eve 1993. He also launched Zorine’s, a seafood eatery later named La Mer and then the Maple Street Pier.
The first Morton’s, elegantly decorated with pewter pig lamps on the tables and photos of local personalities lining the walls, opened in a basement in 1978. The restaurant featured prime aged steaks, superb service and a personal greeting by the owner.
Morton’s struggled to survive, however, until Frank Sinatra happened in after a concert. The celebrity visit was a boon to business, and Morton was soon marketing what he touted as his “steakhouse for the rich” in other major cities, beginning with Washington, D.C.
“People gravitated to my father. He had a certain magic,” Morton’s son Michael, also a restaurateur, told the Chicago Tribune on Saturday. “No one worked a room like Arnie Morton. He would go from table to table with his one-liners. He had an incredible ability to connect.”
In 1980, Morton joined then-Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne to launch the annual food fest called Taste of Chicago.
But not all of his ideas materialized. The imaginative Morton also suggested Chicago attract more tourists by staging a Grand Prix, installing slot machines at O’Hare International Airport and enclosing Navy Pier and State Street in glass.
Several of Morton’s children followed him into the food and nightclub business. Michael launched the N9NE steakhouses and is now working with Playboy Chief Executive Christie Hefner to reestablish Playboy Clubs in Las Vegas. Another son, Peter, was a co-founder of the Hard Rock Cafe chain and opened A.J.'s steakhouse in the Las Vegas Hard Rock Hotel in honor of his father. Peter also joined Morton’s daughter Pam to launch their nonaffiliated Morton’s at Melrose Avenue and Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles, a celebrity hangout made famous as the site of the annual Vanity Fair Oscar party. Daughter Amy Morton-Levin opened her Mirador restaurant in Chicago in 1989.
Morton served in the Army infantry in Europe during World War II and then attended the University of Alabama, where he played football.
He is survived by his wife, Zorine; three sons, Michael, David and Peter; four daughters, Pam and Stephanie Morton, Amy Morton-Levin and Debra Morton-Berger; a brother, Robert, and 13 grandchildren.