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Scale Model

How contrarian nightclub mogul Michael Morton is bringing a little innovation to Las Vegas

Author MICHAEL KAPLAN

IN VEGAS, which boasts dance floors the size of football fields and steroidal fine-dining restaurants with upward of 300 seats, nightclub kingpin Michael Morton seems oddly content with his new, relatively tiny slice of the pie.

Well built with a shaved head, looking smart-casual in a button-down shirt and a pair of jeans set off by patent leather tuxedo shoes, Morton, 46, sits at a rear table in La Cave, his cozy restaurant and lounge inside Steve Wynn’s vast eponymous casino. La Cave is modest in size, with a menu focused on good wine, small plates and reasonable prices (wine flights start at $15 and go up to $60; tapas-style entrées range from $10 to $19). It represents an abrupt departure in a city where “bigger is better” may as well be the mantra of both customers and operators, but that’s the point. “If I don’t bring something different to the table,” Morton says, “they don’t need me here.”

Morton, whose father, Arnie, launched the Morton’s steakhouse chain and whose brother Peter cofounded the Hard Rock empire, discovered his métier by bucking conventional wisdom and trying to stay a step ahead of the consensus. He grew up outside Chicago, in Highland Park, and learned about the hospitality trade as a kid by working for his father. “I was predisposed to the business,” he says. “I never considered anything else.”

After graduating from college, Morton immediately assumed management duties for the family firm. “My father was a tough operator, though, and it was hard for me to work for him,” he says. “He asked me if I wanted to take over the Morton’s chain, but after a couple of years I knew I needed to make my own mark on the world.”

Emboldened by a few successful ventures in Chicago, Morton opened his first Vegas nightclub, Drink, in 1992, at a time when dance clubs were virtually nonexistent in Sin City. It was huge. After the big casinos caught up to him and devised similar enterprises of their own, he partnered with George Maloof, owner of the Palms, to create the N9NE steakhouse there. It’s a chic restaurant in a town where beef had typically been served inside dour wood-paneled rooms — not a glass-and-chrome temple complete with a caviar bar in the center and Leonardo DiCaprio raucously celebrating his birthday in the corner. That was also huge. At the same time there was Ghost Bar on the roof of the Palms, which features one of the best views in Vegas, and the nightclub Rain, which has fire and water shooting around the dance floor.

But then Morton did the unthinkable: He sold it all. He walked away from the massively popular over-the-top party scene that he pretty much pioneered in Vegas and started La Cave, which, at a mere 6,000 square feet, is smaller than most high-roller villas. (Rather than raising the roof, Morton actually lowered the ceiling, to make the place cozier.) “I recognized that the phenomenal wine bars that thrive in San Francisco and New York are nowhere to be found in Las Vegas,” he says. “I wanted to do something that doesn’t exist here.”

Morton’s knack for zagging while everybody else is still zigging is something that “I’ve gotten from my dad,” he says. “Morton’s paved the way for a lot of steakhouses; my dad had the first private club in Chicago, he created the Playboy Clubs for Hugh Hefner and he opened a fairly avant-garde nightclub in the 1970s. It’s a combination of looking at a market and looking at a property, and creating something that does not yet exist.”

Morton appears to be on the right track, considering that no less a visionary than José Andrés recently opened an outpost of his elevated tapas joint, Jaleo, in the Cosmopolitan. And soon after La Cave debuted late last year, Bill Hornbuckle, chief marketing officer of MGM Resorts (parent company of the Bellagio and the Mirage, among others), predicted that the coming trend in Vegas would be small plates and controllable portions, as opposed to the belly-busting tasting menus that have become ubiquitous around town.

Alternating sips of Stags’ Leap cabernet sauvignon and bites of chili-spiked yellowtail sashimi, Morton offers another reason why La Cave is the right bet at the right time. “I’ve had my share of nights that end when the sun comes up,” he says. “I have two young kids now, and I enjoy spending time with them.”

Of course, there are certain unavoidable occupational hazards, but the nature of La Cave has made them easier to deal with. “I still sometimes stay out until 3 or 4 in the morning,” Morton says, grinning, “but without the big, booming bass pounding in my ears.”

Hemispheres contributor MICHAEL KAPLAN is thinking about lowering the ceilings in his apartment to stay ahead of the trend.

WYNN-WYNN PROPOSITION

The most surprising thing about Michael Morton’s bold little venture is the deal he managed to negotiate with Steve Wynn. Widely considered the smartest hotelier in Vegas, Wynn is also notoriously controlling. He’s never allowed any of his retailers, restaurateurs or nightclub runners to work independently: They all have to partner with him. The lone exception, thus far, is Michael Morton.

Why? It’s simple. “Steve thought that I wanted a second-class location. For all intents and purposes, La Cave is on a dead end,” Morton says. “What I saw, though, were three intimate rooms that unfold into one another, where you don’t hear the sounds of slot machines. It’s set away and that makes it romantic. That was the point.”

PHOTOGRAPH BY DANA HALVORSON/URBAN VISION STUDIOS

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