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 Restuarants and Bars Operated by N9NE Group at Morongo
 Casino Resort Go Dark; Targeted the Wrong Crowd
By Jonathan Shikes, The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, Calif.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Jun. 2, 2005 - When Morongo Casino Resort and Spa opened last December, it lit up the desert, but two of its restaurants, a bar and night club have gone dark.

The three trendy spots, as well as a bar and a boutique gift shop, were all owned and operated by the N9NE Group, which made its name targeting glamorous clientele at similar locations in Chicago and at the Palms casino and resort in Las Vegas.

Upscale eatery, Belly Italiano, and Space Bar, which sits atop the casino's 27-story hotel, will reopen Friday with new names, new hours and under the management of the casino, said resort general manager Bill Davis by phone.

The N9NE Steakhouse and the Desert Rain nightclub will remain closed for the time being, he said. The casino would like to find another company to operate them.

The N9NE Group had no comment, according to Nadia Al-amir, who works for the company's public relations firm, Wagstaff Worldwide. N9NE is owned by Scott DeGraff and Michael Morton, whose father founded Morton's of Chicago.

More than 300 employees who worked for the N9NE Group will be offered other jobs with the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, which owns the resort, Davis added.

"I was really disappointed. I liked our relationship with them and that they are established in Las Vegas and had run great venues at the time," Davis said.

Morongo originally contracted with N9NE because it hoped to target the same crowd of hip, young high rollers who frequent the Palms resort.

That off-strip hotel is owned by flamboyant entrepreneur, George Maloof, and his family, and it attracted Hollywood stars, sports celebrities and billboard divas.

But Cabazon, where the Morongo Casino is located, is quite a bit different from Las Vegas, which had some people puzzling over N9NE's involvement.

"The casino business in the valley doesn't get the quantity of high-rollers that Vegas would," said Coachella Valley restaurateur Lee Morcus. "There aren't a lot of people within a few miles of Cabazon who are going to support a higher-end restaurant."

Morcus, who owns seven Coachella Valley eateries, including two Chop House steakhouses, said Las Vegas attracts the best chefs, designers and architects in the world because the casino companies are willing to pay them whatever it costs.

"I don't think this casino business in our valley has reached or will ever reach that level, no matter how healthy it is," he said. Nevertheless, the closures came as a surprise. "Everything I'd heard was that they was first class and first rate," he added.

The casino's Davis said the hotel and the tribe's other restaurants have all turned a good business since the $250 million-plus resort opened more than six months ago amid plenty of fanfare. "So I can't imagine that theirs weren't," Davis added.

Tribal chairman Maurice Lyons said in a statement that the N9NE Group asked out of its leases in the resort and needed an answer by June 1.

"The tribe is honoring that request," he said, adding that it will take time to work out a financial settlement. "Because negotiations for acquisition could take place over an extended period, it made sense to begin now in working with N9NE Group."

Belly Italiano, which has been temporarily renamed The Restaurant at the Top, will now open daily at 5 p.m. beginning on Friday, while Space, now called the View Bar, will be open from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. every day.


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Copyright (c) 2005, The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, Calif.

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