News Article | 4/1/2007

For duo, a number of successes with restaurants, bars, N9NE Group serving up fun in Victory Park

For Scott DeGraff, it’s first about the deal and then the design. He says he’s looking for “a sense of surprise, making something from nothing, doing the unexpected, the near impossible. … It’s the drama and the glamour of walking down those steps.”

Mr. DeGraff is sitting on a couch in Nove Italiano, the Victory Park restaurant he helped design, from a wine-cellar wall that lights up to chandeliers that change colors to high-definition plasma screens that morph images of Renaissance paintings.

“I don’t know how to turn on a cash register,” says the 43-year-old entrepreneur. “They wouldn’t trust me with the keys.”

That’s his partner’s strength. He has known Michael Morton since they were 9 – thus, the name of their wildly successful company, the Las Vegas-based N9NE Group. Now they aim to be the buzz barons of Dallas.

Mr. DeGraff and Mr. Morton are the creators of Nove Italiano, N9NE Steakhouse, Ghostbar and the retail store, Stuff, all lavish entries at the 75-acre, $3 billion Victory Park. There, four years ago, they agreed to partner with Dallas developer Ross Perot Jr. to create what he envisioned as a new urban showcase.

All about the fun

Nove and the rest are only a three-point shot from American Airlines Center, home to basketball’s hottest team, the Dallas Mavericks. Just like one of the songs that make the walls throb in Ghostbar, Mims’ “This Is Why I’m Hot,” Mr. DeGraff says the Victory experiment is working – fantastically so, it would seem – because it appeals to a glaring need in American culture: a sense of surprise.

“This is not brain surgery,” he says. “Our goal is to put smiles on people’s faces. Does it have to be fun? Yes. It’s our mantra. It’s the reason we do business.”

It’s a vision his partner shares, although both say they’re dramatically different from each other. Mr. DeGraff is the dreamer, Mr. Morton the bottom-line realist. One is the visionary, the other charged with making the vision a profitable, sustainable reality. Longtime friends describe them as a quintessential odd couple, contradictory and complementary.

Mr. Morton, 42, is a restaurateur by blood. A graduate of hotel and restaurant management school, he’s the son of the late Arnold “Arnie” Morton, whose famous Chicago steakhouse still carries the Morton’s name. His brother, Peter, once owned the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.

“As my dad once told me,” says Michael Morton, “working in this business is 90 percent common sense and 10 percent having a good eye.”

Chance to shine

Four years ago, Mr. DeGraff and Mr. Morton were approached by Jonas Woods in Las Vegas. As Mr. Perot’s partner, Mr. Woods believed the two could help transform a blighted patch of downtown land on the site of a former power plant.

Mr. DeGraff says his eyes lit up. “We would not be in this business if we could not do dramatic things that make an impact,” says Mr. DeGraff. Dallas fit the bill “on every level.”

Mr. Morton saw it as a chance to revivify a city’s core, one that needed not just a face-lift but a shot of adrenaline. He’s astonished by the results. “What’s going on down here is unbelievable,” he says. “I’ve never seen a project that has changed the face of a city as much as this one has.”

And with it has come some unexpected results. “I never thought I’d root for the Dallas Cowboys,” the Chicago native says, shaking his head. “I’ve actually become a Dallas Cowboys fan. Even I can’t believe it.”

Mr. Perot, chairman of Hillwood Development Co., says Mr. Morton and Mr. DeGraff were perfect for Victory because “they’re considered if not the best, within the top three or four restaurant entertainment entrepreneurs in the nation right now. These two are very good. They’re terribly creative, very focused on detail and quality, and they’re still small.

“We wanted a unique concept at Victory. We didn’t want to be No. 20 of 100 concepts rolling out. They’re still the owners, they’re still hands-on. And they’ve got a great sense of style and taste.”

Not everyone is enamored with that sense of style and taste. One restaurant critic once suggested that the N9NE decor may reflect arrested adolescence as much as it does daring design. In an otherwise favorable review of the N9NE Steakhouse in his city (3 stars as in “excellent”), Chicago Tribune dining critic Phil Vettel once opined: “DeGraff and Morton are not completely prepared to put away childish things. And so the interior of [N9NE] somewhat resembles a grown-up’s playground, a sprawling space with cool stuff everywhere you look.”

And now that same cool stuff is all over Victory Park. Since Ghostbar, atop the 33-story W Hotel, opened in the midst of last summer’s heat, a wave of splashy openings has followed: N9NE Steakhouse in January, Nove Italiano in March and coming next year, Liquid Sky, a nightclub with a retractable roof.

Transforming power

Mr. DeGraff says he bumped into Mr. Perot the other night and told him, “You should be proud of yourself, because every six months, this project is transforming itself.”

Part of that alchemy is the AFI Dallas International Film Festival, which concludes tonight. Victory helped sponsor the festival, which used the plaza, with its glittering neon and mammoth high-def screens, as a social hub. Such stars as Lauren Bacall, Bill Paxton, Eric Stoltz and Lou Diamond Phillips were spotted wandering around, which is nothing new to Ghostbar.

Sightings there have included Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens, brother actors Owen and Luke Wilson, and singer Jessica Simpson. All of which is entirely fitting, says Mr. DeGraff, “because we’re in show business. We’re totally an entertainment business.”

And for him, much of the showbiz thrill comes in innovative design. A lawyer by training, he continues to revel in “the major deal.” But he’s also a frustrated architect. He subscribes to 60 magazines from around the world, to ferret out concepts he can parade at the next N9NE Group debut.

Ghostbar displays some of the playful design cues that echo in the other properties. Its decor vividly weaves together a cosmic palette of silver, gray, white and ghostly green in a 12,500-square-foot space. It boasts floor-to-ceiling windows, futuristic furniture and a central bar lavishly backlit with LED crystals. An outdoor balcony, with a transparent swath of floor, isn’t for the faint of heart.

For Nove Italiano, Mr. DeGraff’s magazine compulsion led him to an Oklahoma topiary shop.

“You don’t find 12-foot-tall naked women topiaries growing on trees,” he says of the leafy green statues looming outside. “If there were such a forest, I would want to visit it. … I wanted this place to be old-meets-new. There had to be that wow factor. Sexy meets stylishness.”

Perfect partnership

It’s a concept the N9NE Group has consistently followed in Las Vegas and Chicago, where the partnership began. Recent projects include a $600 million expansion at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, with three new N9NE venues in the top three stories of the hotel’s new Fantasy Tower: Nove Italiano, the Playboy Club and Moon nightclub.

Both men, married and fathers of young children, say it’s easily the most exciting time in their shared history but also the most daunting. Both admit to being tired; Mr. DeGraff says he and his family will soon move to Aspen, Colo., one of his favorite getaways.

The DeGraff-Morton partnership started in Chicago in 1992, when they collaborated on the opening of Drink Chicago. Mr. DeGraff had only recently gotten out of law school and had already tired of working for a large button-down firm.

Mr. Morton took his father’s training to N9NE Steakhouse, which debuted in Chicago in 2000. A second N9NE Steakhouse opened the next year at the Palms, where most of the organization’s 17 venues are located. Eight new venues opened within the past year alone. Mr. DeGraff blames the close timing on construction delays.

“Trust me,” he says, “we never would have planned it that way. It’s been exhausting. But we’ve also never been more successful. This is truly the culmination of a lot of our dreams.”

Even with one in Vegas and the other in Aspen, the partnership will continue to rock, they say, because for both, money is only a starting point. They say it’s mostly about the fun they’ve had since they were 9-year-old boys.

“A lot of big companies have said, ‘Hey, put one in this city or that city,'” says Mr. DeGraff. “Our goal is never to go into a city and do one venue at a time. It’s not what it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to be about the synergy between the venues. We’re big on synergy.

“You can come to dinner at Nove or N9NE. You can go to a Mavericks game. You can go to Ghostbar. We’ve achieved that here, and we’re thrilled about it. Look at what this corner of Dallas looked like before – and look at what it looks like now. We couldn’t be happier.”