The Real Miami Circle, Act One

Max's Place

Prologue: About six weeks ago, in Bal Harbour Shops, a restaurant called Max's Place opened in the space where Petrossian formerly held court. It was only a few months after Petrossian had gone out of business, and the entire space needed to be revamped to fit the new concept. But the restaurateurs were so eager to debut Max's Place that they opened without finishing the floors, installing the glass room dividers, or putting up the wall-length mirror. Despite the design flaws -- only minutes after being mopped, the black-and-white-tile floor would look dirty as dishwater -- the eatery was received with a burst of enthusiasm from local diners, who remain jaded about most other restaurant openings.

Why? You could say it was because of the “Max” so prominently featured in the bistro's appellation. That's Dennis Max, the archetypal restaurateur who, with the help of his many partners, chefs, and hired hands, neon-ed a name for himself and South Florida back in the Miami Viceera. Any eatery that opens with the Max marquee, someone is bound to tell you, will be an instant taste-bud success.

But there's much more to this tale, which includes famous gastronomic characters and a number of South Florida's most famous restaurants. It is, in part, the story of the founding of the region's modern culinary scene. In fact the scene wasn't just born; it was made, in the manner of a Greek comedy -- or tragedy, depending on your point of view. And the extremely influential individuals who created it still play a major role, chasing one another around in what some would label a vicious circle: All of them, in a six-degrees-of-separation kind of way, worked together. But along the way, partners have sued, cheated, and even begun divorce proceedings against one another. Almost all have committed the eternal crime of backstabbing (which hurts even more when done with kitchen knives). Many no longer are on speaking terms -- though given the narrow confines of our subtropical world they can't seem to avoid one another, either -- while others have reconciled and moved forward.

It began back in the mid-Eighties, when Dennis Max and his wife, Patti, founded Café Max in Pompano Beach, the flagship restaurant of what eventually would be an exclusive culinary domain. The Max duo quickly formed an alliance with partner Mary Anne Richter, who wanted to help run the first-ever California-style eatery in South Florida. Soon the trio brought a then-unknown Mark Militello onboard as executive chef, and almost immediately began receiving attention from a nation sick of nouvelle cuisine. The fare was the precursor to New World cuisine, emphasizing clean flavors, inventive combinations, and the use of local products. It had its base in the California movement, where foods were being grilled over mesquite and served with light sauces and reductions. Over time Caribbean influences emerged, and terms like Floribbean, Florida fusion, and New World were applied.

The quartet went on to open Max's Place in North Miami, which focused on New American cuisine, and Maxaluna, serving California-influenced northern Italian fare, in Boca Raton. Both restaurants became equally as popular as Café Max.

Despite the positive attention from diners and critics alike, however, the partnership was troubled. Dennis Max wanted to create more Max eateries, while Militello wanted to downsize and concentrate on cuisine. The ensuing split was so rancorous that Max and Militello, according to sources, signed lawyer-penned statements stating that they wouldn't talk to the press about each other. (Indeed Militello refused to comment on this story, saying only that New Times should be careful, because his latest partner is a lawyer.) The upshot was that Militello would buy out Max's interest in Max's Place and Max would retain Maxaluna. Café Max was sold to third parties Oliver Saucy and Darrel Broek for a reportedly enormously inflated price.

Left in the middle, Richter chose to align herself with Militello and became his partner in Max's Place, which quickly was renamed Mark's Place. While Max and wife Patti, with the help of partners Burt Rapoport and developer Dan Catafulmo, launched a string of brasseries, bistros, and grills in Broward and Palm Beach counties, Militello and Richter focused on turning Mark's Place into a gastronomic landmark. They thrived and decided to expand into Fort Lauderdale, opening Mark's Las Olas, another immediate success. And then, not having quite learned their lesson the first time around, they overextended themselves and inaugurated a third eatery, Mark's at Grove Isle, which was troubled from the very beginning. Eventually the strain of operating three fine-dining establishments took its toll, and the pair divested Grove Isle and disposed of Militello's personal flagship, Mark's Place. Then they quit each other. Militello ran Mark's Las Olas (later to reopen in Miami) and Richter, lo these many years later, has reteamed with ... Dennis Max. Thus the new Max's Place, this time more of a café than a fine-dining restaurant, is kind of the old Max's, reborn in Bal Harbour.

Here then is the story of the rises and falls and returns of Max, Militello, and Richter, in all their combinations.

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