Not-So-Silent Night

Morton's of Chicago

A few evenings ago, driven by a combination of Joyeux Noël, a Chicago reverie of Proustian dimensions, and a base, wintertime craving for charred red meat, I donned my gray flannel suit, hopped on a cable car, and met friends at Morton's. Our primary intent was to investigate the shop windows around Union Square, then take in a hearty meal to combat San Francisco's brand of upper-40s solstice chill. Unfortunately, one member of our dwindling band had a cold, another had to get home in time for The X-Files, and I handle the Yuletide with substantially less repose than I did a couple of decades ago. As a result, we more or less scrapped the Joyeux part and concentrated on suppertime.

Still, Morton's is a pretty good place to experience that citified Christmas spirit exemplified by the Sinatra recording of "Let It Snow" -- the one we native San Franciscans embrace in self-defense, since for us the traditional iconography of snowmen and sleigh rides is as experientially foreign as a holiday on Mars. The urban observance involves department-store windows and Christmas trees in hotel lobbies and hot toddies consumed in little saloons with crackling hearths and Vince Guaraldi's "Christmastime Is Here" on the jukebox. Morton's bar fits right into this scene.

After hopping off the cable car -- which is likely to be festooned with colored lights, evergreen, and caroling passengers -- I entered Morton's tall vestibule, descended a sweeping staircase into the dim, subterranean enclave, and made my way to the bar. Tranquil yet festively decorated, this humble retreat is where '40s R&B star Oscar McLollie and other yuletide hepcats can be heard celebrating the season amid the clubby deco wainscoting and single-malt scotches.

Here's the Beef: Chef Isaac Mancilla, pleased to meat you.
Anthony Pidgeon
Here's the Beef: Chef Isaac Mancilla, pleased to meat you.

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986-5830. Open for dinner Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. (bar opens daily at 5 p.m.). Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: Union Square and Sutter-Stockton garages. Muni: 2, 3, 4, 76, Powell Street cable car. Noise level: high.

Bacon-wrapped sea scallops $13
Porterhouse steak (48 ounce) $68
Lamb chops $31
Baked potato $5.50
Sautéed wild mushrooms $9
Lemon soufflé $12
Martini $7.25

400 Post (at Powell)

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I've never been to the original Morton's on State Street in Chicago -- I'm more of a Gene & Georgetti's man -- but that's not for lack of opportunity. I can't imagine a cross-country trip without a stop in what blues legend Joe Williams called "my little Chi-town," home of the Art Institute, Wrigley Field, Second City, and the Kingston Mines blues emporium, not to mention a living, breathing, citywide museum of incomparable urban architecture. Chicago is one of the two best places I know for eating (the other is Rome): It offers Italian beef sandwiches, hickory-smoked spareribs, and Byron's hot dogs with celery salt, along with Greek, Polish, and German food unlike anything available to the deprived Pacific-coaster. There's deep-dish pizza, yeah, but also stuffed pizza (especially Edwardo's). And, most relevant to this day's outing, it's got terrific steakhouses, among which Morton's is pre-eminent.

In recent years Morton's has replicated its elegantly masculine self beyond the shores of Lake Michigan and into a chain of more than five dozen restaurants, including one in Singapore, another in Hong Kong, and three more in Chicago (in addition to the downtown original). The 36-item menu is identical at each outlet. Each honors a venerable Morton's tradition: waiters roll carts laden with Saran-wrapped foodstuffs to each table for pre-menu perusal. One can purchase Morton's gift certifi- cates, Morton's steak knives, and even Morton's pig lamps -- porcine, pewter light fixtures similar to those that cast a soft glow across every Morton's tablecloth around the world. The result of all this sameness is a certain stylistic inevitability: At the San Francisco outlet, the meat-cart show-and-tell is as rote as a flight attendant's, and despite all the Giants memorabilia afoot there's no hint of an insurgent local sensibility. Then again, let's admit it: The food's good, and rib-sticking enough for the winter solstice.

Back at the bar, I decided to sample Morton's version of that great American chophouse aperitif, the martini. Although the restaurant offers a slew of egregious variations -- including one with orange vodka and crème de cacao -- it has the wherewithal to concoct a specimen of classic proportions: ice-cold Boodles gin stirred with a hint of vermouth, scented with a long, slender twist of lemon peel, and served in a glass the size of the Tin Woodman's chapeau. You'll need a big drink to brace yourself against the dining-room mishegossto come: Low ceilings combine with the chattering of a hundred-plus hungry carnivores and the distant bass of an unidentifiable soundtrack to create a really noisy setting. Despite the elegant, dark-paneled, tuxedoed-waiter ambience, everyone tries to outshout the other. (For respite there are two "Boardrooms" equipped with individual controls for lighting, climate, and sound, available for private groups of 10-32; the Boardroom I peeked into was filled with men in suits as gray as my own, a fair indication of Morton's clientele.)

Fortunately the food excuses a lot. The shrimp cocktail is simplicity itself: four huge, tender prawns arranged around a tart, bracing dipping sauce -- the ideal appetizer. The sea scallops are even better, wrapped as they are in bacon, broiled until smoky-sweet, and served with a terrific apricot chutney edged in horseradish. The salads aren't up to the other starters' high standards, though. The Caesar, while hefty with good, fresh greens, comes scattered with supermarket-level croutons; it betrays not a hint of anchovy and is smothered with a goopy, cheesy dressing. (It isn't prepared tableside, either, a dying art that one hopes might still be practiced in expensive steakhouses, if nowhere else.) The sliced beefsteak tomatoes, thick and meaty though they are, are practically tasteless (I know, I know -- what did I expect in the middle of December?), but the pungent, creamy chunks of blue cheese adorning them are a pleasure unto themselves.

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