The Real Miami Circle, Act Two

Café Max

Militello wasn't the only one who was feeling the heat of three kitchens. “Mark was going from Café Max to Max's Place to Maxaluna, [but] he was really looking to concentrate on fine dining. And I really didn't get into it to have 25 restaurants,” Richter says. “So we decided at the time that our aspirations were different, and that's when we had the separation.”

The “separation” to which Richter refers actually was more along the lines of a bitter breakup that spanned 1988 and 1989. The Maxes retained Maxaluna but sold Max's Place to Militello, Richter, and their investment partners (and Café Max to Saucy and Broek). “There was a little bit of exchange of money back and forth, and everybody was happy,” she claims. The rumors that Max and Militello were at that time engaged in a nasty feud seem to belie her blithe statement, however, and on closer reflection Richter admits that, “I guess separations are never really amicable. Even though you want it to be, they're difficult. But I can honestly say that Dennis and I always knew it was business and shook hands.” A couple of days after dividing up the business, Richter ran into the Maxes in New York City, and the threesome had cocktails together.

Militello, on the other hand, probably would have preferred to see Dennis Max drink hemlock. Though the pair reportedly signed statements claiming they wouldn't rag on each other, one altercation did make it into the papers. In 1989 Militello was banned from participating in Broward County's Art à la Carte cooking competition. His banishment could have been provoked by the fact that after departing Café Max to take over Max's Place, he was now considered a Miami chef, and the competition was for Broward toques. But Militello told columnist Ron Ishoy of the Herald that Max had masterminded the boycott. “[Art à la Carte organizer Ina Lee] was under a lot of pressure, mainly from Dennis, and I'm sure there are a few others who aren't happy.... It was a difficult breakup, and I'm sure any way they can get back [at me], they will. I'm not outraged, just really disappointed.”

Max responded succinctly: “That's bullshit. I've not spoken to anyone.” Today he lumps that divisiveness with other splits. “You let go and move on and try to live in the now. I hold no grudges against anybody.”

Max may claim not to hold grudges, but some of his former partners do (coming in Act Three). And while he consistently denies wrongdoing throughout the years, the silver-mustachioed restaurateur can seem evasive during interviews. At other times he can employ the mien and ego of a professional athlete, the kind who believes he's excepted from the laws that bind the rest of us. Some acquaintances describe him as arrogant. He calls himself a reluctant celebrity and downplays his adversaries. “I didn't get into this business to be famous. I still find it hard to believe that people recognize me, talk about me, gossip [about me]. But it's a real simple thing. They build you up and then knock you down. And I've been up way too long.”

Regardless, sources say he hasn't always acted kindly. For instance, after he sold Café Max to first-time restaurateurs Oliver Saucy and Darrel Broek, insiders insinuate he used to go into the restaurant to taunt them. They say he'd bet the pair they couldn't make a go of the place and planned to take over when they failed. Saucy won't admit much except to say he and Broek had high balloon payments to make and “it wasn't always easy.” But the duo, who incorporated as Innovative Restaurant Concepts in 1988, has owned Café Maxx free and clear since 1993 (they are now concentrating on their newest venture, East City Bistro in Delray Beach). At the end of the day, Saucy has respect for Max. “I learned a lot from Dennis. He was an innovator for his time. He just went a different way.”

That way included what Saucy calls “going into prime growth mode.” In 1989 Dennis and Patti Max, as Unique Restaurant Concepts, returned to Raffles-type ventures (see Act One in the October 12 “Dish”) and opened Brasserie Max in the Fashion Mall in Plantation. They sold it a year later to the Hooters franchise. Then in 1990 and 1991, Unique opened four restaurants: the Atlanta Café on Nantucket island; and Prezzo, Max's Grille, and Wilt Chamberlain's in Boca Raton.

The return of Burt Rapoport to the fold was part of the reason why Unique was able to launch so many places in such a short time. Rapoport brought the Prezzo concept (a Cal-Ital blend of Spago and Mezzaluna) to Unique and swiftly became the Maxes' partner in almost every venture, with the noted exception of Maxaluna (that particular restaurant remained outside the Unique umbrella). “I wasn't even a partner in Max's Grille originally,” says Rapoport. “But it had a terrible opening. There was a litany of problems. Lots of personnel problems. Dennis and Patti asked me to be a partner, and I just went into the kitchen and started firing people.” It was probably here that Rapoport earned a reputation as Dennis Max's hatchet man, though it's hard to equate the soft-spoken, almost sorrowful-faced man with such a description.

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