Seven Questions for Michael Morton

The former nightclub impresario and current restaurateur on why bigger isn’t always better, the power of XS and the artistic legitimacy of the nightclub DJ

Michael Morton

Photo by Anthony Mair

Before opening Drink here in 1995, you operated several bars/nightclubs in the Chicago area. When did you know building a nightclub in Vegas would be a smart investment?

Typically, if you own a nightclub—or any business—you want to be in a place that has proven to support many other clubs. We did that in Chicago … where we knew there was a real solid market. What made it risky to open a big, modern nightclub here was there were none. So when we opened Drink Las Vegas, we knew it was going to be one way or the other: It was going to be a big success or it wasn’t. We thought it was highly likely to succeed, but whenever something hasn’t been done before at that level, there’s inherent risk involved. Big rewards come with big risk.

As you unlocked the doors to Drink on opening night, did you know you’d hit the jackpot or were you nervous?

Oh, no—that night was explosive. I mean literally, explosive. It’s funny because my brother, Peter, who had opened the Hard Rock [Hotel] in March, was there with his friends from L.A., and he said, “Michael, come here.” He took me outside, and the music was bouncing off the Marie Antoinette building across the street, because we didn’t have a roof in the outdoor area. But people went crazy. It was really a special night. We knew that night we had something.

How soon did you realize that Drink had a shelf life?

We became a victim of our own success—and it didn’t take long. Las Vegas is a town of copycats, and if it works for somebody, somebody else wants it. And that was certainly the case with Drink. And if you remember, shortly thereafter, there was Ra and Studio 54 and Rumjungle, and at the time it was very difficult—or impossible—to compete as a freestanding nightclub without a casino budget attached to it.

What are your first memories of the Vegas nightlife scene?

Not being able to go to a club. I remember being at opening of The Mirage, and—having had bars in Chicago at that time—saying, “Why are there no nightclubs in Las Vegas?” There were a couple of little local spots in the late 1980s, but I remember wanting to get out of the casino, and there was really nowhere to go.

When you look at the Las Vegas nightclub scene in its current state, what makes you cringe?

I don’t want to say that it makes me cringe, but I just think that they’ve gotten too big. The intimacy is gone. They’re just gigantic; they’re factories. To me, the smaller it is, the higher quality human being you can have in there, the sexier crowd you can attract. That’s hard to do when you’re doing 7,000 people a night. That’s an incredible business—they’re making an incredible amount of money—but from a quality standpoint, you’ve got to give something up with the more volume that you do.

How will we know we’ve reached the point of nightclub oversaturation—or have we already?

The market is oversaturated today, there’s no doubt about it. If you think about Light and Hakkasan and all the other [big clubs] that have come on in the last three or four years … there are a lot of places that are open, but they’re not doing much business. Doesn’t mean they’re going to close, but certainly from a viability standpoint—or from a profitability standpoint—the market is oversaturated.

After leaving the Palms, you jumped into the restaurant business with the Morton Group, which owns La Cave at the Wynn, La Comida in the Fremont East district and Crush: eat, drink, love, which opens next month at MGM Grand. So what’s more stressful: operating a restaurant or a nightclub?

Ooh. They’re different types of stresses. Even though I think restaurants are much harder to run—I know they are, because there are so many more moving parts—a nightclub is more stressful. Moving that many bodies in that many spaces when it’s that loud and there’s that much alcohol involved, it presents a whole different host of problems. Although from a technical standpoint, it’s much more difficult to try to create something on a plate. So, stress: nightclub; difficulty: restaurants.

If you had the opportunity and desire to purchase any nightclub on the Strip tomorrow, which would it be?

Wow. That’s a great question. [Pause.] You’d have to say XS, because of its power. But I’d have to give a call out to Tryst, a great-looking room with a great feel. But to be at XS at the Wynn, that’s the top of the mountain.

True or false: Nightclub DJs have the greatest scam of the 21st century?

False. These are modern rock stars. My son listens to electronic music. This is not a fad; it’s not going away. It’s all the more power to these guys that they don’t have all the massive overhead of loading up trucks and going on the road like big bands do.

Until you’re in a room with a Tiësto—we had Tiësto up in Ghostbar—to watch what these guys do … it’s like any professional [athlete] or anybody at the top of their artistic game: They rose to that level because they’re better than everybody else. But these are some super, super talented artists.

So those of us who think it’s nothing more than pushing a button are dead wrong?

Oh, yes. Sorry to say, but yes. Highly wrong.

Did you feel more anger or pride when the copycats started popping up?

Well, you don’t feel pride when you’ve got a diminishing asset. We just wanted to get to the next evolution, and we were very fortunate that we did when we got lucky to meet up with George Maloof and have an incredible run at the Palms.

Indeed, you replicated your success with Drink when you opened Rain at the Palms. How was the vibe different in those two places?

Drink was like the wild, wild West. Somebody could cause a problem, run out the door and just be gone. … Rain was the right concept at the right time in the right location—it was that good. And we watched this thing grow and grow, quarter after quarter. It had a long run; Rain lasted more than 10 years. That’s pretty unheard of today.

When we first opened Rain, it wasn’t a residency-driven market. It was just great DJs and a great party, and all the same sexy things that you certainly enjoy with any nightclub, but without the massive overhead that you see today.

You obviously thought enough of the emerging Downtown scene to open La Comida. What do you think that area will look like five years from today, and how does it get there?

Urban renewal and redevelopment takes a lot of time; there’s a learning curve. So it’s going to take a lot of baby steps, really. We came into this deal here knowing we were on the front end of Downtown [redevelopment], and I said, “In two years, I think it will be good, or really good, and in four or five years, it’ll be great.” And I think that’s holding true, if you look at Life Is Beautiful, the Container Park that’s about to open, Downtown Grand just opened. But wholesale revitalizations of old neighborhoods take years, and it’s gotta happen in kind of an organic way. That’s why you see more places opening and some places not working out, and the market will have to bear out on what makes [Fremont East] succeed. But it’s patience, and I’m very impatient.

What’s the story behind the concept at your new restaurant at MGM?

We were very fortunate to get that old Nobhill location, where Michael Mina had a great run. It’s called CRUSH: eat, drink, love. It’s the crush of the experience, of the senses, of the flavors, the energy. The crush of the grape, of being in love. It’s a shared-plates cosmopolitan culinary experience, which gives us a little bit more versatility to do things we want to do. And the design is incredible. But at the end of the day, it’s about a great, high-energy experience—and this goes back to [the philosophy behind] N9NE steakhouse: A great experience and great food are not mutually exclusive. You can have both. And certainly that is our goal.

More fulfilling: building a successful restaurant or building a successful nightclub?

Successful restaurant, by far. There’s more that goes into it. There are so many more ingredients that need to go into the pot, and when it’s right, it just feels so good. And you don’t spend your whole night in a nightclub—you could spend many hours, or morning hours. But a great restaurant, you could spend your whole night. It can be the whole party. And that to me makes it more rewarding.