Morton's seeks the youth

When it comes to chain restaurants, Morton’s the Steakhouse is virtually unrivaled in the response it prompts. Tell someone you’re going to an Olive Garden for dinner and the reaction is likely an unexcited “Oh, that’s nice.” Tell folks you’re going to a Morton’s and watch as their eyes widen.

But if your audience tends to associate the restaurant with certain airs — its hushed, dimly lit dining rooms and premium steaks suggesting upscale refinement — that’s because they’re thinking of the old Morton’s, a place that catered almost exclusively to business types wooing either clients or prospective lovers. It was here, over succulent surf-n-turf, that Armani-clad executives celebrated the new account; here, too, where the fine wine encouraged some great dates.

The old Morton’s still exists, and it’s still doing just fine. Over the last few months, however, it’s been added onto, retrofitted for and supplemented by a new space with a mission to draw a younger crowd: Bar 12-21.

Twenty-four of the chain’s 76 U.S. locations already feature a Bar 12-21, according to Tylor Field, Morton’s international vice president of wine and spirits, and the plan is to expand on the idea until every restaurant is included.

This, Field argues, simply makes sense for Morton’s business model. “We already had a very strong bar presence in the restaurant,” Field says, “and our customers have always been drawn to the dark tones, that sort of ambiance, and also the quiet. But if it’s too quiet, as a business, you’re not doing enough business.”

The solution: Add a brighter, homier space adjacent to the Morton’s dining room — a setup that would provide the ancillary benefit of, in Field’s words, “drawing a new consumer into the restaurant.”

Of course, getting that new consumer interested in checking out the bar in the first place might be a hurdle, given the restaurant’s haughty reputation. At its Georgetown location, for example, Morton’s is actively recruiting the young-professional set by advertising the just-opened Bar 12-21’s twice-daily “power hour,” which features several reduced-price appetizers. (Obviously, this ain’t your typical pub grub. Forget Kraft-coated chili cheese fries and think more on the order of mini filet mignon sandwiches.) Another draw: one big-screen and three flat-screen TVs running the length of the bar; Morton’s wants Bar 12-21 to be the place you come to root for your Redskins or holler for your Hoyas.

So how is it panning out? The crowd at the Georgetown Bar 12-21 is, on a recent Saturday evening, perhaps a bit longer in the tooth than what Morton’s had in mind. To be fair, though, this is not a post-work happy hour, and there are no specialty-priced munchies on weekends. In any event, there is a marked difference, in both age and attitude, between the patrons who huddle around the bar and those who occasionally file out of the restaurant proper.

If Bar 12-21 has drawn something of a cashmere-and-Cabernet crowd tonight, it’s at least a group that loves its college football as much as its vintage vino.

“No way that’s a catch,” shouts Dan, an attorney in his late thirties who, if you didn’t happen to notice the flecks of gray in his John Edwards-style coif or the fact that he’s sipping wine and not chugging beer, you might think was a current LSU student, and not an alumnus. “We’re young at heart,” he remarks between plays. “The kids might have the corner on this place weekdays, but we hold it down just fine.”

And well they should. For all its efforts to entice the post-university Georgetown masses, Bar 12-21, in its casual elegance, still appeals to this slightly older type. Who better to appreciate the naturalistic vibe of its wood paneling, its medium-bright lighting scheme and array of top-shelf liquors? Tonight’s is a crowd that knows the difference between Ketel One and Absolut and prefers Tanqueray Ten with its tonic. More than once, someone remarks on the row of Scotch whiskies standing on a shelf behind the bar, each with a faded-tan label and a name beginning with “Glen.”

As Anise, a stunning, thirty-something brunette in a snug-fitting mohair turtleneck, puts it, Bar 12-21 is perfect for the in-between crowd — classy enough, but not so much so that you can’t feel free to be yourself.

“It’s a good mix,” she says, pausing for a moment from her Colossal Shrimp Cocktail. “I could scream at the TV here, I could get a little tipsy without feeling guilty about it, but I probably don’t have to worry about someone spilling their beer on me.”