Much like its star partner Michael Jordan, Cornerstone Restaurant Group has benefited from years of success by maintaining a commitment to excellence and by reinventing itself to stay relevant. The company started in 1993 with the opening of Michael Jordan’s Restaurant—now Michael Jordan’s Steak House—in Chicago and has since expanded to include a variety of other concepts, some with Jordan and others with notable chef and hotel partners. Cornerstone’s portfolio now boasts 14 venues spanning American, Asian and Mexican concepts, as well as several wine bars, and revenues top $30 million annually.
Cornerstone enjoys success by focusing on hospitality and the guest experience and by taking good care of its employees so they can help maintain the friendly and approachable atmosphere the company works so hard to create. While executives admit high-quality food was their initial focus, the drinks business has risen to become an integral part of the dining experience at all Cornerstone venues. The beverage segment comprises more than 30 percent of overall company sales.
“Our restaurants are built around the experience, from food service and beverage to design and delivery,” says CEO David Zadikoff, whose son, Josh Zadikoff, serves as brand operations manager. “Our mantra is called the ‘Cornerstone Way of Life,’ and we demonstrate that approach internally by delivering unbelievable beverage and food offerings to create an attitude and environment that’s memorable. Today, the social aspect of the dining experience is very much attuned to great beverage and great flavors. It’s a big shift, but it’s exciting to be a part of what’s coming.”
Aligning with Michael Jordan for a restaurant in Chicago at the height of his sports prowess helped catapult Cornerstone Restaurant Group during its early years. David Zadikoff says the Jordan name comes with an expected level of quality for which the company strives. “Bringing Michael into our business is a stamp of approval,” he explains. “We have to deliver at a very high level. For us to reach those heights is a challenge.”
The company operates three Michael Jordan’s Steak House units in Chicago, New York City and Uncasville, Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun Casino Resort. The concept aims to be upscale but comfortable and without pretense. The menu lists various cuts of beef, from a filet and a strip to a Delmonico that’s dry-aged for 45 days ($44 to $58 in Chicago). These dishes are joined by a handful of chicken, pork, lamb and fish entrées ($28 to $46) and sides like three-cheddar macaroni and cheese, duck fat–marinated fingerling potatoes, and creamed spinach ($9 to $15).
Specialty drinks are gaining ground at Michael Jordan’s Steak House. “Wine has always been part of the steak business, but now we have mixology going on in a very big way. It’s a vital piece,” David Zadikoff says. Each restaurant has its own distinct menu of signature drinks. In Chicago, the list boasts inventive offerings like the Fallen Matador ($13), blending Hornitos Añejo Tequila, ginger-chamomile syrup and lime juice, topped with Henriot Brut Souverain Champagne, and the Art of War ($13), made with Suntory’s Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve single malt whisky, Marie Brizard Apry apricot liqueur, pineapple, lemon and yuzu. In Manhattan, the restaurant’s specialty cocktails ($14) pay homage to its location in Grand Central Terminal. The venue’s Martini, called the Commodore Vanderbilt, mixes Zyr vodka and olive juice, garnished with a blue cheese–stuffed olive, while its updated Kir Royale, named the Club Car, blends Chambord raspberry liqueur and Canaletto Brut Prosecco.
Wine remains a key part of the Michael Jordan’s Steak House experience and is the top drinks performer in sales. The restaurants aim to offer a mix of upscale and accessible labels. “We make sure our staff has the knowledge to serve our guests so it’s not an intimidating experience,” Josh Zadikoff says. “We have a range of approachable glass pours and expensive cellar selections, including some that match Michael Jordan’s personal cellar. The lists span Old World and New World, with a focus on domestic labels.”
The wine menu boasts 20 glass pours ($10 to $18) and nearly 100 bottled selections ($40 to $320 a 750-ml. bottle). There are familiar labels like Clos du Bois Chardonnay and Sterling Vintner’s Collection Pinot Noir alongside such higher-end offerings as the 2012 Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2010 Grgich Hills Zinfandel. Craft beer is also making inroads at the steak houses, especially in Chicago. The Windy City location pours a variety of boutique beers on draft, including local offerings by Goose Island Beer Co., Revolution Brewing and Two Brothers Brewing Co. ($7 to $8).
In addition to the steak house concepts, Michael Jordan is involved in Cornerstone’s two other Mohegan Sun venues—23.sportcafe and SolToro Tequila Grill. Named for Jordan’s basketball number, 23.sportcafe is a sports haven with food and drinks to match. The eatery serves sandwiches and burgers, as well as larger entrées like ribs, steaks and lobster mac and cheese (sandwiches start at $12; entrées are $15.50 to $29.50). The Jordan-themed specialty drinks ($11) include the Buzzer Beater, made with Stoli Razberi vodka, Malibu rum, grenadine, and orange and pineapple juices, and the Tarheel Tea, a blend of Deep Eddy Sweet Tea vodka, DeKuyper Peachtree schnapps, Arrow triple sec, cranberry juice and sour mix. The café also has a bustling beer program that spans big-name domestic and lesser-known craft labels ($5.50 to $7 a 16-ounce pour; $7.50 to $8 a 23-ounce pour).
Modern Mexican flavors rule at SolToro. The lively venue offers enchiladas, burritos, tacos, and grilled items like bacon-wrapped filet mignon medallions and smoked grilled salmon (entrées are $14 to $26). Tequila and whiskey take equal bidding on the drinks side. The House Margarita is mixed with El Charro Silver 100-percent Puro de Agave Tequila, while its signature Manhattan contains Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Bourbon. The venue’s Old Fashioned boasts both spirits categories, comprising Basil Hayden’s Bourbon, Avión Añejo Tequila, Ancho Reyes ancho chili liqueur, Fee Brothers Orange bitters, muddled ancho chili and agave syrup. Cocktails start at $9 and go up to $75 for the High Roller Margarita, made with Don Julio Real Tequila and Grand Marnier Cuvée du Centenaire. SolToro also lists nearly 25 beers ($6 to $16 a bottle; $5 to $7 a draft pour) and more than 70 Tequilas and whiskies ($7 to $250 a 2-ounce pour) available for sipping neat.
Cornerstone Restaurant Group invested in the bustling upscale Asian food trend when it aligned with Chicago chef Bill Kim, who’d been operating his flagship restaurant Urbanbelly and its offshoot Belly Shack for a few years before Cornerstone came calling. The company partnered with Kim in 2012 to launch BellyQ, and the restaurant portfolio is poised for expansion.
“As a company, we’re very comfortable working with celebrity brands and maintaining the integrity of great established labels,” David Zadikoff says. “It’s wonderful to be in markets like Chicago and New York City, where there’s such a plethora of amazing concepts. It forces you to reach and constantly evolve and improve what you’re doing.”
Urbanbelly puts a modern spin on Korean noodles, dumplings and rice. The venue boasts Wagyu beef dumplings, Pad Thai, pho and the signature Urbanbelly Ramen, which is topped with braised pork belly, mushroom and egg (dumplings start at $7 for four; entrées range from $8 to $14). The casual, communal restaurant along Chicago’s Randolph Street also boasts a varied selection of Asian beers ($3 on draft; $4 to $12 a bottle), wine on draft ($8 a glass; $24 a half-liter; $38 a 1-liter carafe), and sangria and sake ($7 to $9 a glass).
BellyQ is a more sophisticated restaurant that explores Asian barbecue and boasts tableside hibachi grilling stations. The menu includes sections for small and large appetizers, shared plates and Asian-inspired sides. Standouts include Thai-style fried chicken, lamb buns, roasted pork butt and marinated short ribs ($5 to $18). The concept’s drinks program is equally adventurous, with signature cocktails ($11) like the Kill Bill Vol. 1, comprising Sudachi shochu, Del Maguey Vida mezcal, house-made passion fruit drinking vinegar and aloe, and Chasing the Lotus, mixing Botran Reserva Blanca rum, Kikusui Funaguchi Gold sake, Letherbee Barrel-Aged absinthe and kiwi. BellyQ also pours beer and wine on draft and has a variety of sake selections ($6 to $18 a glass; $78 to $99 a bottle).
Branching out even further, Belly Shack is a Korean–Puerto Rican fusion concept that specializes in the street food enjoyed by Kim and his wife, Yvonne, during their youth. The restaurant offers Korean barbecued beef tacos served with dirty rice and a pork belly banh mi sandwich served with crispy plantain chips ($8 to $12). Belly Shack also serves beer ($5 to $8), wine ($6 to $7 a glass; $25 to $30 a 750-ml. bottle) and sake ($9).
“The drinks component is a huge part of our business,” says Mark Dombkoski, Cornerstone’s vice president of operations. “The Belly group of restaurants has wine on draft and batched cocktails, and the evolution of craft brewing has made beer a key component at all of our venues. The beverage segment is equally as important as the food. Our chefs are involved in our cocktail programs, and the food at each concept has to match the drinks.”
The wine bar Eno is Cornerstone’s most recent venture, operated in partnership with Strategic Hotels. The concept’s six venues are located in San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, D.C., as well as in the coastal California towns Coronado, Laguna Niguel and Half Moon Bay. Cornerstone manages the Eno brand and its menus and design.
Josh Zadikoff says the company aims to make the spaces relaxed and comfortable and the wine experience approachable and fun. “We’re taking the seriousness out of wine,” he adds. “We serve flights so guests can try new things. Our focus is international, but also location-specific. The wine bar in Washington, D.C., has Virginia wineries on tap, and in San Francisco, we serve the wine director’s own label. In Chicago, we teamed up with City Winery and we feature some Michigan offerings. Eno represents the global wine world from the vantage point of each location.”
In San Francisco, Eno has a 120-plus bottle list ($22 to $280 a 750-ml. bottle) and more than 30 glass pours ($9 to $22), as well as 10 flights ($17 to $24 for three 2½-ounce pours). The Grumpy Old Vines flight ($20) offers the 2010 Vinoterra Saperavi Selection from Georgia, the 2010 Domaine Rimbert Carignator from France and the 2013 Peregrine Ranch Zinfandel from California’s Dry Creek Valley AVA. The venue also serves snacks, salads, sandwiches, flatbreads, cheese and chocolate ($6 to $20) and provides wine-pairing suggestions.
Expansion has been slow and measured for Cornerstone Restaurant Group—a strategy that David Zadikoff says is intentional. “We’re fairly conservative,” he explains. “We enjoy what we do and we’re firm in how we do it, when we do it and with whom. The company has selected great partners, but we’re careful in how we make those decisions. We’re not about growing rapidly. We want to stay consistent and focused on what we do.”
Going forward, the CEO expects to add units under the Michael Jordan’s Steak House and Belly restaurant brands, with the goal of opening a couple locations a year for the next five years. He says plans are already in the works in a few markets so that the company can grow at a controlled pace. Community and hospitality remain at the forefront of Cornerstone’s core values, and the company, as a management entity, will remain low-key so that its chefs and partners can shine.
“We want to anticipate future trends and be ready for the next generation of diners,” David Zadikoff says. “Drinking and dining have become more social, and beverage is now such an integral part of the restaurant experience. We’re grateful for what we have and gracious in our delivery.”