Serial restaurateurs have a reputation. We picture them as brash and cutthroat, working around the clock to stay ahead of the fickle game of serving trendy food. But family men residing in the Evanston community? Not so much.
Yet both seasoned restaurateur David Morton and five-time James Beard nominee Chef Michael Kornick live with their families in Evanston — and we’re thankful they do. The two partners just raised the bar for the Evanston dining community with their new restaurant, DMK Burger & Fish, where they will serve fare similar to Chicago mainstays DMK Burger Bar and Fish Bar.
Our favorite menu items include the turkey burger with refreshing dijonnaise, and the Satchmo, a fried shrimp and crawfish sandwich served on a perfectly toasted top-split roll lathered with a savory roasted garlic aioli. Pair those with any of the to-die-for fries or shakes, and you’ve got yourself a meal. The small size and communal tables make for an intimate atmosphere, but the modern design and music keep the space youthful and fun.
Beyond this new venture, the powerhouse team also owns six more restaurants that have built the DMK empire into what it is today: three DMK Burger Bar locations, Fish Bar, Ada Street and County BBQ, the latter two sporting Michelin Bib Gourmand titles.
Back in December, I had the pleasure of speaking to Morton, who spoke about his past, his longtime desire to open an Evanston restaurant and his plans for the future. Read on to learn about the Evanstonian who’s helping usher in a new era in our suburb’s dining scene.
So how long have you lived in Evanston?
I’ve been here 10 years. I love Evanston. I love the proximity to the city. I sometimes go back and forth, more than once a day. I’ll go downtown and work, then come back and pick up my wife and go back downtown for dinner. I also love the proximity to nature. We’re basically steps from the beach. My wife and I have a daily ritual where we wake up early in the morning and do a four-mile walk by the lake. It’s just a way to spend some time together before the kids are up and running. So Evanston allows for a lot of that. And I love having the proximity to the university because it does make the city dynamic, cool and interesting. No drawbacks of living here, as far as I’m concerned.
Why open up in Evanston now?
This will be our seventh restaurant. One of the focuses of our company is using restaurants to slowly transform the industry. We are interested in the intersection between really hardcore culinary and casual. And as we move through our projects, I’ve come to think of us both as an HR company and as a restaurant company. Part of the journey of opening different concepts for us has been mostly inspired by a motivation to draw the best possible talent we can find. A lot of our projects are opportunistic. This space and this time was opportunistic. The deal was actually made on a handshake while I was jogging along a path by the water. I ran into someone who had some involvement with the space, and knew there was some potential in Evanston so, at that particular time, I said, “Great. We’ll move forward based on the opportunity.”
Can you tell us a little history behind Burger Bar and Fish Bar?
Part of what we are interested in doing is having one of the most expensive inexpensive restaurants in the industry. We’re super into value, but also super into really high quality for everything from design to the food. So when Michael and I started this little voyage together, it was around DMK Burger Bar. When we started out we spent the better part of a year traveling the country. At the time, before the big burger boom, burgers were still relegated to fast food. We went from L.A. to New York to Milwaukee to Dallas to Vegas, and Philadelphia — wherever possible to see what our contribution to the world of burgers was going to look like. We saw a place called Father’s Office in L.A. that was very inspiring. They had one store, and did a couple things very, very well. Today, DMK Burger Bar has been a huge success for us. At the end of the day, I think DMK’s competitive advantages include hospitality. It’s a lost art. We have an amazing training program on it, and we spend a tremendous amount of time and energy training people on what we think are the principles of creating amazing moments for guests. DMK is the largest buyer of grass-fed beef in the Midwest outside of grocery. So we arrived to the grass-fed beef party very early. We’ve had a meaningful impact on the market in general. Our locations include the original in Lakeview, one out in Lombard, and we’re working on one for Soldier Field. So DMK is, to this day, one of the only burger restaurants that is truly chef-inspired. Fish Bar was just like Burger & Fish in that it was an interesting opportunity. The space became available right next door to the original DMK, so I kind of felt that it was an opportunity to play 75% defense and 25% offense in an effort to control the corner. In preparation, Michael and I traveled quite a bit to think about what we’d do with that tiny space. We really fell in love with a couple of concepts, one in New York and one in L.A., that were really passionate about delicious fish. And at the time there was very little innovation in the Chicago restaurant scene that revolved around fish. We liked the idea of the counter-service element that we were inspired with at a place called Mary’s Fish Camp in New York.
How did the Burger & Fish concept come about?
For a long time we’ve been talking about doing another iteration of DMK Burger Bar and Fish Bar next door. And then this opportunity in Evanston came up. The conversation has evolved, as it always does, but we think that Burger & Fish will resonate with the Northwestern audience. This establishment is unique because of its service model. It’s more of a quick-serve model. We’ve been spending a ton of time (we’re still working on it) thinking about how we can add as much hospitality as possible to an area of the industry to which people don’t typically associate value. It’s a shrunken version of DMK Burger Bar’s menu with a lot of opportunity for evolution. So you’ll see some selection of burgers that are always there, but the menu will continually change as well. For Fish Bar, we have a section called “On a Bun,” which is our sandwich section, and it’ll feature three or four of Fish Bar’s sandwiches.