Earlier this summer, a giant quote from Rudyard Kipling appeared on a boarded-up storefront in downtown Evanston.
“I’ve taken my fun where I’ve found it,” read the sign’s scrawled white letters.
The spray-painted saying was the work of Amy Morton, a longtime Chicago restaurateur and Evanston resident who is opening the restaurant Found at 1631 Chicago Ave. this fall.
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Morton took the sign down at the request of city officials, and while she doesn’t want to offend, she says the fact that it got noticed was also sort of the point. She planned to post a new quote every few days as the restaurant took shape, getting people excited about what was to come and giving them something to chew on—figuratively speaking.
“I think all of us, certainly myself, would feel really happy to be a place that makes people think about things differently,” she says.
When Found opens, hopefully during the third week of October, every piece of furniture, every decoration and every dish in the place will be designed to “tell a story,” Morton says.
Standing inside the space last week, she explains how she wants to transform the high-ceilinged room that used to house the restaurant Gio, with its famous fake Roman columns and giant mural. Morton took those down, revealing a big, open space flanked by bricks on one wall and a gleaming dark wood bar on the other.
Her vision? “Gertrude Stein salon of 1920s Paris meets Jack Kerouac in my living room.”
A salon-style seating area with couches, a coffee table and high-backed chairs leads to a main dining hall, with a library in the back. On a chalkboard ceiling above the bar, Morton has found a home for the literary and thought-provoking quotes she planned to spray-paint outside.
Nearly every piece of furniture inside the restaurant does, indeed have a story—like the globes Morton collects because she loves to travel, the 1920s bicycle hanging behind the bar (her husband loves to bike) plus eight mirrors and the white telephone from Chicago’s famous celebrity hangout, the Pump Room, which Morton bought at an auction when the place closed and reopened last year.
Oh yes, she adds—the décor will also be for sale, allowing Morton to continue bringing in new finds. (Except, perhaps, for the two tall-backed armchairs, originally from the Ritz Hotel in Minneapolis, which later decorated Morton’s first restaurant in Chicago and spent the last 20 years in her house.)
“Everything is purposeful, from how we buy to what we buy,” Morton says.
The same holds true for the food, says Chef Nicole Pederson, who has previously worked at Logan Square’s Lula Café and most recently at C-House in downtown Chicago. She’ll source ingredients from local purveyors, like Nichols Farm, and plans to rely heavily on fresh vegetables and grains in her dishes.
“If you had to put it into a box, we’re going to call it ‘contemporary American,’” Pederson says.
“Oh, no, never. We’re undecided on that,” Morton interrupts. “I feel like ‘eclectic American.’”
The label “Contemporary American,” Morton continues, sounds too ‘80s. Either way, the menu will include knife and fork sandwiches, smaller plates and hopefully some wood-fired dishes, if the city grants Found approval to install a wood-fired oven.
“We are a work in progress,” says Morton. “This is so much of what we have been doing, is figuring out who we are.”
The former owner of Mirador and The Blue Room in Old Town, Morton has taken the last ten years off to raise her three daughters—but the restaurant business is in her blood. She grew up working for her father, Arnie Morton, founder of the Morton’s chain of steakhouses and owner of several other Chicago restaurants. She waited tables at Morton’s and hostessed at Arnie’s, her father’s landmark spot on the Gold Coast. Later, she oversaw hiring and training for several of his restaurants.
Morton started her first restaurant with her brother in the late ‘80s, then opened Mirador and the Blue Room—serving up provincial French cuisine with live music upstairs—in the ‘90s. Later she worked with KDK Restaurants, a group that managed the now-defunct Red Light and Marché.
“For a long time I felt like restaurants chose me, rather than me choosing it,” says Morton. But, she says, “I think I always knew I had another project in me.”
Then Art Smith, Oprah Winfrey’s former chef and owner of Chicago’s Table Fifty-Two, suggested that he and Morton start a green restaurant together. The project didn’t come to fruition, but it got Morton thinking. She decided she wanted to open another restaurant.
For three years, Morton searched for the perfect place, focusing her efforts in Andersonville.
“I found great places, but I could not pull the trigger on anything,” Morton says.
Locating in Evanston was always in the back of her mind, however. At one point, she looked seriously at Pensiero Ristorante. But when it came time for the owner to sign the contract, he pulled out.
“After three years of looking, it was the first time I was really disappointed,” Morton says. “I realized, it’s because I really wanted to be here.”
“The second I realized it, everything happened like that,” she says, snapping her fingers. “What a no-brainer, being in a community that I live in.”
Beyond the local furniture and local food finds, the restaurant will also emphasize helping the community. Morton is working with Connections for the Homeless and Inspiration Corporation to hire employees who might otherwise be homeless.
“Every decision is going to be thoughtful,” says Morton. “Everything is purposeful.”