It’s hard to describe the place of Michael Jordan in the hearts and minds of Chicagoans. In a city completely devoted to sports and perpetually resigned to losing (see: Cubs), he became the hero that the city needed. As a kid growing up in Chicago during his ascent — I turned 2 the day after the Bulls drafted him — there was nothing better than being able to claim Jordan as my own.
The Greatest of All Time was my very own superhero and when he helped the Bulls to not one, not two, but six NBA championships, I felt like I was right there with him, holding up the trophy for all to see in those Grant Park celebrations every summer. Almost 30 years after he became a Bull, His Airness has retired from playing basketball, but his shadow looms large. That’s why I was so curious to go in and try his recently opened steakhouse on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.
Celebrity-branded restaurants are nothing new. Ever since former President Millard Fillmore opened Millard’s House of Mallards (it was an all-duck restaurant*), restaurateurs have realized that the power of celebrity is enough to get people in the door and increase their bottom lines. The Athlete Steakhouse is a specialized subset of the celebrity restaurant genre and, perhaps, the most prevalent. From Brett Favre’s in Green Bay to Elway’s in Denver to Schula’s in Miami, athletes and pro sports icons have long been lending their names to beef emporiums in the cities that made them famous.
Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse is actually a chain. The first two locations are on the East Coast, but the newest sits on the second floor of the Hotel InterContinental in Downtown Chicago. It’s a very modern room and fairly small by steakhouse standards, with two identical sections that only seat 160. The menu is full of steakhouse classics (wedge salad, shrimp cocktail, creamed spinach), but Chef James O’Donnell elevates his dishes with local, seasonal ingredients and Michael Jordan-themed accents like aging his ribeye for 23 days and serving a shrimp and grits side dish that pays homage to Jordan’s North Carolina upbringing. While the food is very good – the garlic bread with blue cheese fondue is truly exceptional – there’s a larger question at play. Does the steakhouse bearing the man’s name resemble the man in any way?
At first, I thought the answer was clearly no. Despite the fact that the chairs are Bulls’ red and the number 23 can be found everywhere from the grating around the wine racks to the layers in the too-rich chocolate cake, there is nothing about the restaurant that comes anywhere close to the larger-than-life superstar of my youth. For a celebrity restaurant, it’s certainly better than it has to be, but it doesn’t reach that rarified stratum that Jordan seemed to inhabit for his entire career.
The more I thought it, though, the more I realized it was my memories that didn’t match the steakhouse. In actuality, the restaurant reflects today’s version of Michael Jordan. The flashiness of dunk contests and buzzer-beaters is long gone and it’s replaced by a cool confidence. It’s Michael Jordan the entrepreneur, Michael Jordan the playboy dad. There is something older about Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse, but completely modern at the same time. Like the billionaire athlete who has moved on to success in a new facet of his sport (he now owns the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats), his steakhouse has reinvented itself within the genre. It’s sleeker, more upscale; it’s informed by the history of what came before it, but eager to show that it’s paving a new path in the wake of previous success. Just like the man himself.
*Millard’s House of Mallards never existed. Sorry, folks.
Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse 505 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL, 60611, mjshchicago.com