Food & Drink

The Power Behind Michael Jordan's Enduring Steakhouse Legacy

The myth, the man, and the glorious magic of icy martinis, seared steaks, and Chicago’s meat history.

Michael Jordan steakhouse
Maitane Romagosa/Thrillist

Sports were not my thing as a kid. Neither watching nor (shudder) playing them held much appeal; I was your classic bookworm type. But there was an exception, though at the time it felt less like a sport and more like a fact of life: I was a Bulls fan.

I grew up in Chicago in the 1990s, smack dab in the heyday that’s meticulously documented in ESPN’s Michael Jordan-focused docuseries The Last Dance. I was in junior high when the team completed their second three-peat in 1998 and remember playing with the novelty “Repeat The Three-Peat!” basketballs our local Boston Market gave away with family-pack meals. My best friend’s bedroom was decorated almost exclusively with Bulls posters, including the classic Nike “No Bull” number featuring the trifecta of Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman that’s currently selling for $999 on eBay. I cannot overstate how deeply normal it was for an entire classroom of pre-teens in Chicago in this era to all be wearing Bulls jerseys, especially on game days.

To grow up in Chicago during this time meant internalizing the supremacy of Michael Jordan as a simple fact of life. His presence was constant, awe-inspiring, and maybe a little intimidating. He brought glory upon our city. Even weird kids like me, who weren’t “into sports,” understood somehow that the Bulls were above sports. Michael Jordan was a god. These were the facts.

Here’s another thing you just kind of grow up with as a fact in Chicago: meat. We take our meat very seriously. Think about the city’s most iconic foods: hotdogs, Italian beef sandwiches, pizza infused with a literal sausage disc (thank you, Lou Malnati). In history class, we learned all about how Chicago, a railroad hub surrounded by cattle-farming heartland, became a major meat processing powerhouse in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s notorious 1906 account of grueling conditions in the stockyards on the city’s South Side, was required reading; it involves (spoiler) a worker being eaten alive by rats. The Encyclopedia of Chicago  reports that from the Civil War until the 1920s, Chicago was the country's largest meatpacking center and the acknowledged headquarters of the industry.

"What could be more fitting for a city built on the legacy of meatpacking?"

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that the steakhouse emerged as a potent symbol of Chicago dining. What could be more fitting for a city built on the legacy of meatpacking? In this town, you can take your pick of steakhouses, old-fashioned (Gene and Georgetti) or newfangled (Boeufhaus), and everything in between.

Not all steakhouses are the same, of course, but you could make some generalizations about the genre. Beef will obviously be the star of the show, and if you can’t get an icy martini alongside it, you’re in the wrong place. Vibe-wise, whether they’re legitimately old-school or not, steakhouses often present as steeped in tradition, evoking feel-good waves of nostalgia. And they’re usually not cheap, but their expense is justified by the large portions and the sensation that you’re dropping a bunch of cash in a classy way. Steakhouses might not offer the most... ahem... cutting-edge dining experience, but they remain popular because they’re straightforward and reliable, an all-American indulgence.

Which brings us to the combination of two Chicago icons: Michael Jordan and steakhouses. Plenty of athletes have lent their names to restaurants for years, including two other mega-stars in the Chicago sports universe, Harry Caray and Mike Ditka. These athlete (or athlete-adjacent)-branded restaurants often lean in to the sports theme in a way that feels tacky, with memorabilia plastered on the walls and menus of gimmicky sports bar fare. MJ himself fell victim to this trope, opening Michael Jordan’s Restaurant in Chicago’s River North in 1993. Local critic Phil Vettel was unimpressed, headlining his review “Err Jordan: His Restaurant Shoots and Misses,” and complaining about off-flavored scallops and an overpriced gift shop. (It closed in 1999.)

But that was just a blip. Jordan, undaunted, and dare I say driven by a passion to win, wasn’t done with the restaurant industry. Take a moment here to remember and appreciate, in addition to his athletic dominance, his business acumen: Jordan is one of the most marketed sports figures in history, serving as the face of Nike, Coca-Cola, Gatorade, McDonald’s, Wheaties, Hanes, and Chevrolet, among others (he also co-owns the Charlotte Hornets and an automotive group). That’s a bunch of highly pedigreed brands to align yourself with, and it proved to be an extremely successful strategy. This year, Jordan ranked No. 1,001 in Forbes’ annual tally of the world’s billionaires, with an estimated $2.1 billion fortune; he is considered the world’s richest athlete. Getting in on the restaurant business would be a smart move, if he could align his name with the right kind of restaurant.

Jordan needed a restaurant with cachet, not a gimmicky tourist trap with oversized buffalo wings. He needed something classy, straightforward, and poised for success. What he needed was... a steakhouse.

Jordan’s first steakhouse venture was actually not in Chicago. In 1997, he signed a licensing deal with the Glazier Group, then known for revamping the clubby Monkey Bar in Midtown Manhattan, to open a Michael Jordan Steakhouse in New York’s Grand Central Terminal. It was an upmarket affair in a historic space, designed to celebrate “Michael Jordan the businessman” – no sports paraphernalia, no photos of MJ shooting hoops. Ruth Reichl, then The New York Times dining critic, gave positive feedback in a 1998 review, describing the menu as “a straightforward document offering serious food that is a far cry from what you find at the All-Star Cafe or Mickey Mantle's,” praising the partners for finding a way to “capitalize on Mr. Jordan's fame without jeopardizing his dignity.”

"The Michael Jordan Steakhouse prides itself on something called 'steaksmanship,' promising to '[elevate] the classic steakhouse experience to the Michael Jordan level.'"

More Michael Jordan Steakhouses followed under a different deal with the Cornerstone Restaurant Group (the Glazier Group filed for bankruptcy in 2010, though the Grand Central restaurant remained in operation until 2018). There’s one in Chicago, naturally, as well as the Ilani Casino in Ridgefield, Washington, and a Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut (a bit on the nose considering the star’s affinity for gambling, but that’s a story for another day). According to their marketing materials, the Michael Jordan Steakhouse prides itself on something called “steaksmanship,” promising to “[elevate] the classic steakhouse experience to the Michael Jordan level.” I don’t know what that means, but if you put their menu in front of me without any branding, I’d easily identify it as a steakhouse in the classic mold, with perhaps a few “modern twists” (Gumbo! Duck fat rice!) thrown in for good measure.

The MJ Steakhouses continue to be generally well-received, with Chicago Tribune critic Vettel (the same guy who previously trashed Jordan’s sports bar) writing in 2011, “No matter how many steakhouses a city might have, there will always be room for a great one. And Michael Jordan's is going to be a great one.” My dad, who still lives in Chicago, reports that the Magnificent Mile location, inside of the InterContinental Hotel, is considered “classy and classic,” as well as “something of a pickup joint for a slightly older crowd.” (Cool, dad.)

Global pandemic aside, the steakhouse business has generally been good for Michael Jordan: following the launch of the Chicago location, Cornerstone opened a second, more casual Michael Jordan’s Restaurant in the affluent suburb of Oak Brook, as well as an MJ23 Sports Bar & Grill in the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. It seems he has found a restaurant style that gels with the image he tries to project (smooth and sophisticated, disastrous ‘90s menswear decisions aside), and yet another way to successfully extend his legacy beyond the court.

Jordan hasn’t talked much about his restaurant ventures in The Last Dance (maybe he will in the last two episodes, airing this Sunday, but...probably not). But that’s okay. Watching old clips of Jordan absolutely dominating on the court feeds many of the same pleasure receptors in my brain that tucking in to a predictable-yet-totally delicious slab of beef at a steakhouse does. I know exactly what I’m getting, and I know I’m going to be completely satisfied. MJ remains a near-mythical figure, and maybe when we’re allowed back in public again, eating at his steakhouse is as close as we’ll get to the divine.

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Jamie Feldmar is a Los Angeles-based writer and cookbook author. See more of her work at jamiefeldmar.com and follow her @jfeldmar.