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Cut It Out

A restaurant institution, Cafe Max offers diners good stew but poor presentation.

by Louisa Koeppel

hardly ever hear much talk about Cafe Max. It is one of those restaurant institutions that has been around for years and has its loyal group of customers while staying clear of the new generation of restaurant-goers. Located at 6161 Poplar, the restaurant has its own ideas about dining and seems to shun the popular trends that are sweeping across this city and throughout the nation. These trends include style and presentation, quality rather than quantity, and expanded lists of wines, beers, and other quenchers. Cafe Max should examine these options.

Cafe Max’s menu offers an array of pastas, shellfish, and cephalopod combinations, and some chicken, veal, and beef dishes for the true carnivores.
The decor in the restaurant is dizzying. On first entrance, a mirrored hallway completely turned me around. Once I was rescued by the hostess, my companion and I were led to our table through a sea of brass, neon, and lots of turquoise and mauve. It is like a tripped-out over-the-top Shoney’s. The upstairs bar is toned down and much more cozy, but the color scheme is still tres ’80s.

The menu at Cafe Max is not particularly large, and as far as the wine and beer lists go, that is an understatement. I thought that a place that touts seafood and Italian cuisine would have a fair amount of wines, but this was not the case, and practically the only imported beer they had was Heineken. Not that Heineken is bad, but I would have loved a rich lager to go with my clams and mussels.

The food menu offers an array of pastas, shellfish, and cephalopod combinations, and some chicken, veal, and beef dishes for the true carnivores. Because Cafe Max is so popular for its seafood, we stuck with those menu items that involved the little creatures.

The appetizers we tried were the barbecued shrimp and the toasted ravioli. The shrimp were nicely cooked and still had their ugly little heads on. They were served a sauce that didn’t come close to a Memphis barbecue sauce, but it was still pretty good – slightly sweet with a heavy flavor of rosemary. It would have been nice to sop up the sauce with their fabulous bread, but the server didn’t get it to us until after we finished our appetizer. The toasted seafood ravioli was actually gargantuan fried dough balls with some sort of filling, supposedly containing seafood, but tasting of nothing more than cheese. They were served on a white plate with a piece of wax paper on top, and the marinara was in a plastic ramekin. There was also a sad piece of lettuce thrown on, attempting to be a garnish. Unimpressive indeed.

Our salads were fine but the presentation of the salad dressings was baffling. They were served in those dressing caddies that have the three silver oblong bowls that I remember seeing in this diner in Senatobia, Mississippi, when I was a little girl. I loved them then because they looked like space ships, but I certainly thought these containers had gone the way of the dodo. I recommend going for the blue cheese bucket, but the Caesar dressing could use some umph.

We tried several entrees on our two visits, and the first night was not great. I had the crab cakes and my companion had the blackened tuna Caesar salad. The crabcakes, while interestingly shaped and practically void of the filler that so many restaurants use too much of, was still lacking in flavor. In fact, my companion and I started to wonder if it was real crabmeat. We finally decided it was, but it had been so overcooked that it adopted a rubbery texture. The redskin potatoes on the side were simple and yummy. The tuna on the salad was heavily blackened and cooked to a gray color. Having it on the rare side was not an option given to us by our waiter.

Our second visit was more successful. We ordered the Max stew and a pasta and seafood dish. Both were served in glass bowls, filled with mussels, clams (we actually only got one clam each), calamari, scallops, crab legs, shrimp, and red snapper. Mine was in a very satisfying lobster broth, and my companion’s was in a very subtle white wine and herb sauce. The seafood was perfectly cooked, even the calamari was tender, and it was clear to me that this is their specialty, and they do it well.

Why, then, can they not bring the rest of the menu up to the caliber of the stew? Presentation is so important, and what about a bread plate to go with the bread? My complaints may sound picky, but when customers pay the amount of money that Cafe Max requires, I believe certain things must be expected. Don’t make me ask for water, don’t shove buckets of dressing in my face, and for God’s sake, don’t show me a tray of droopy desserts at the end of my meal. The lack of attention at Cafe Max stands out as much as the stew does for its goodness. The new generation of diners not only wants good food, but an all-around good experience at a restaurant, and the cut corners at Cafe Max frankly don’t cut it.

Dining Notes

by Louisa Koeppel

A Whole New Ballgame

In May, Highland Cue owner Curly Birkholz purchased the Sports Pub, located at 5012 Park Avenue. And with this venture, he hopes to turn the idea of a sports bar on its head.

Birkholz says he’s spent $50,000 to remodel the Sports Pub. He’s replaced the tables, the chairs, the carpeting, and the kitchen. He’s upgraded the air-conditioning system, added a private party room, and upped the number of TVs from seven to 14. He’s also replaced the staff and bought prints so that his Pub won’t be “full of jock bullshit.”

What Birkholz is going for is a better breed of sports bar. He says that the trouble with your average sports bar is that it is too big and the menu is too limited. For the Sports Pub, he envisions a place that is cozier, where patrons can expect a good meal. To that end, he’s added more seating and expanded the menu to include specialty sandwiches. Most importantly, Birkholz vows to provide three things to his customers: service, cleanliness, and quality.

The new Sports Pub will reveal itself on August 17th. Lunch will be served beginning August 20th.


While the i’s haven’t been dotted or the t’s crossed, it’s pretty much a done deal that the Japanese/French restaurant KÝTo, located at 22 Cooper, will be taking over the entire bottom floor of the building. According to KÝTo manager Lynn Chantharasy, the current tenants of the right half of the building have already been asked to clear out. The expansion will allow them to double the restaurant’s seating and will also make room for a sushi bar and a private dining room.

Barbecue Beer

What’s the best way to wash down a mess of Corky’s ribs?

Why not try a bottle of Corky’s very own beer?

The Corky’s label beer, which has been around for about a year now, is made by Breckenridge Brewery. But it’s not the Breckenridge Brewery downtown; it’s the one in Denver, Colorado. According to Todd Usry, director of brewery operations at the Denver site, the story goes that when the Breckenridge founder was in town for the opening of the Memphis restaurant, he hooked up with the Corky’s owner, they exchanged wares, and a deal was struck. Breckenridge makes only two private-label beers for restaurants, and Corky’s is the only one that is bottled.

The beer itself is an amber ale made with hops from the Pacific Northwest. Usry created the beer himself and chose a milder ale to go with the barbecue. He says he came up with the right taste on his very first batch.

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