The first time I met Amy Morton, North Shore restaurateur and member of the Morton Steakhouse dynasty, we drank French press coffee on velvety sofas at Found Kitchen & Social House in downtown Evanston — back when it had that 1920s Paris vibe, before she traveled to Cuba and came back to redo the entire decor.
That was three years ago, and the Highland Park native had just embarked on The Barn, a new “meat-centric” concept that had been marinating since she was 18. It was located one block away, in a building that once housed Borden Dairy’s delivery service (hence the name).
Amy’s culinary resume is well-known among Chicago foodies. For more than a decade, she worked side-by-side with her late father, Arnie, learning the restaurant business from the ground up at his restaurants. She went on to train employees at Arnie’s Restaurant, Morton’s Market Place, and First Street Pier before opening her first restaurant with brother Michael Morton (also now a successful restaurateur who lives with his family in Las Vegas) in 1988. From there she opened Mirador and The Blue Room, launching full-speed into a restaurant career that included consulting and overseeing day-to-day operations at some of Chicago’s most coveted eateries.
How would Arnie Morton’s eldest daughter reinvent the concept of the great American steakhouse in the 21st century?
There was excitement. There were bold interpretations (calves liver has been on the menu since its inception). But there was also an undeniable history that Amy both embraced and celebrated.
“I don’t think there’s a night at the restaurant when people don’t bring up my dad, and the stories are just like the stories I used to hear about my grandfather,” she said in the months after it opened.“It’s so much more than just a restaurant. There’s so much history. Sometimes I feel that I am really just a fourth-generation bootlegger. My great-grandfather was the neighborhood pharmacist, but in the back room, he was selling the good stuff.”
Those who have dined at The Barn since it opened are familiar with the signature staples—all modern takes on classic recipes her father (and grandfather) built their empires on.
Steaks are Angus beef procured from Meats by Linz, a family-owned business in Calumet City. There are a classic variety of cuts: dry-aged New York, center strip Manhattan, bone-in ribeye, and filet mignon. All are served with Amy’s melt-in-your-mouth marrow-butterball potatoes and a variety of toppers (including blue cheese, peppercorns, and béarnaise). Never mind the demiglace, which often cooks for four days to perfection.
Stalwart sides include roasted Brussels sprouts, asparagus, creamed Swiss chard, roasted mushrooms, and—one of Amy’s kids’ favorites—her homemade mac and cheese. And even if it sounds like a lot of food (and yes, it will be), you can’t finish an order without a little gem and creamy Dijon salad, made tableside. Delish, especially with some bread on the table from the ladies at Hewn, conveniently located just down the street.
The Barn has received rave reviews throughout Chicago, from fans new and old. But earlier this year, Amy and her team decided to give the menu and the concept a refresh, lending the menu and ambiance an even more profound, old-Chicago steakhouse vibe.
Think about adding a buttery lobster tail to that Porterhouse (ordered off-the-menu, of course). Or, if red meat isn’t what you’re craving, opt for a bison bolognese (with hand-dipped ricotta, red wine, and chitarra pasta), seared halibut (with mushrooms, asparagus, and fingerling potatoes), or the roasted vegetable Provençal.
The latest lineup of appetizers (which I had the luxury of sampling on a recent visit) goes beyond the long-standing (and always delicious) French onion soup and steak tartare to include a dish called The Grand Central Caviar Sandwich (wild American bowfin caviar, farm egg, and crème fraiche) and a yummy ceviche with cucumber, avocado, oranges, and lime juice.
Finish the meal with a small, but carefully curated dessert list that features everything from the simple and elegant–a bowl of fresh mixed berries or a selection of artisanal cheeses, to old family recipes: Arnie’s chocolate velvet cake never goes out of style.
“We are always evolving,” says Amy, explaining that The Barn is becoming less formal as it growswith the Evanston community. “I believe in this process of becoming. We are already who we were in the beginning. We’re born who we are, and life is about getting us to where we’ve always been.”
Not all tables have tablecloths these days, and the ambiance is less austere and more hometown. “I want it to feel like a place where you can walk in and get a steak or a hamburger any night of the week,” she adds.
And as Amy has said many times, if she learned anything from her father and grandfather (her grandfather owned Morton’s restaurant in Hyde Park) it was that hospitality is about more than serving people a meal. It’s about making them feel warm and welcome, as you would welcome a guest into your home.
“That is the core of how I feel about this business,” she adds. “People have so little free time so when somebody chooses to come to The Barn, it is our privilege to take care of them.”
If you haven’t visited recently, we highly recommend it. The “good stuff ” is always better with age.
The Barn is located in an alley off of 1016 Church Street in Evanston. Check out the latest menu offerings (including a Prix-Fixe “Early Bird” dinner menu that features three courses for $30, every night but Saturday) by calling 847-868-8041 or visiting thebarnsteakhouse.com.