By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
After fine-tuning, Max's Grille, the sixteenth restaurant for Dennis Max, became his signature eatery for several reasons. Located in the upscale Mizner Park mall, the Grille confirmed and solidified Max's position that posh retail centers were the most lucrative places for trend-savvy restaurants. Indeed developers such as Arvida would go to Max first and offer space. Max's Grille also proved a valuable training ground for young chefs and allowed Unique to advance another policy: making deserving chefs into partners, or “phantom owners,” as former corporate chef John Belleme calls it. Chefs like Belleme and Grant Johnson, who rose through the ranks, were offered profit sharing, a bonus that Rapoport says not only kept them loyal but deterred competitors from poaching key employees. And Max sharpened his reputation for spotting talent. Just look at a partial roster of chefs, aside from Militello and Saucy, who emerged from the Max corporation: Kevin McCarthy (now chef/owner of Armadillo Café in Davie), Johnny Vinczencz (currently chef at Astor Place in South Beach), and Kerry Simon (a celebrity chef in Las Vegas).
Finally the Grille established a new kind of bistro dining in South Florida: moderately priced, sophisticated, but not fine dining. The Grille would become a prototype. Max and company would open one in Orlando (which he still owns) and join forces with Sforza, another restaurant group, to jointly open three more. And there would be other restaurants as well, including several more Prezzos, a Max's Coffee Shop, and Mexican eatery Café Ole. The company also stretched its snowbird wings to Livingston, New Jersey, where a Max's Coffee Shop proved a failure, seemingly setting the stage for other rapid openings and closings of Max eateries.
Still, the Unique restaurants' overall popularity admitted Dennis and Patti Max to local celebrity status. But for the most part, Dennis Max was featured solo in newspapers and magazines as the driving force behind Unique Restaurant Concepts. New Times was only able to uncover one article highlighting Burt Rapoport, and none at all on Patti alone.
After the dust stirred up by the Max-Militello breakup settled, Militello, Richter, and their investors renamed Max's Place as Mark's Place. Then Militello got to work doing “what he does better than anyone else,” Richter says, “and that was to cook.” And cook he did. In 1989 Lyn Farmer of the Herald wrote about Militello: “There's no question he is one of the country's great chefs.” But Farmer also added in the same review that “his talents in the kitchen aren't enough to straighten out some problems at the front of the house,” including long waits for reserved tables and “confusion in the dining room.”
At first Richter, who managed the books and records, was still running her own travel agency, but eventually she became more of a hands-on partner. Once her genteel touch calmed the dining room, the awards began pouring in. In 1990 Food & Wine named Militello one of the ten best new chefs in the United States. He took a James Beard Award, the industry's highest honor, in 1992.
Chefs almost unanimously agreed. John Belleme, for one, notes that “[Militello] is a very intelligent guy with a great palate. I'm not sure how fab he is in business, but he's a great chef. At one time that was an incredible restaurant.” In 1992 Paul Bocuse, pioneer of nouvelle cuisine and one of the most famous chefs in the world, asked Militello to autograph a menu after dining at the restaurant.
Despite their 1988 intentions to downsize and concentrate in one kitchen, Militello and Richter in the fall of 1994 launched Mark's Las Olas, which received plenty of attention. Until Mark's had opened there, Las Olas Boulevard, a promenade similar to Lincoln Road, had yet to see a truly fine-dining restaurant. In addition the amount of money being spent on the interior reportedly was in the two-million-dollar range. Though restaurateurs today seem to regard spending millions of bucks as de rigueur, in 1994 the sum was prodigious. All factors combined, diners and critics alike were eager to sample the goods.
Despite Richter's newfound commitment to running the restaurants, Mark's Las Olas suffered from the same shortcomings Mark's Place did at first. On one visit while I was reviewing the restaurant, my 9:00 p.m. reservation wasn't honored until 11:00. Other critics remarked on chaos at the front of the house. But Militello's culinary talents won out. Just as with Mark's Place, his fans were and are legion, his customer base culled from all over the nation. The eatery settled into a destination, and today Mark's Las Olas remains Militello's flagship restaurant.
Lulled by success, Militello and Richter debuted a third restaurant a year later. Maurice Weiner, one of the owners of Grove Isle, a private community in Coconut Grove, approached Richter, she says, and asked if the pair would be interested in running a Mark's in the Grove. The answer was yes, but it should have been no.
While Mark's in the Grove easily created as much buzz as Mark's Las Olas, this time both critics and diners were less than enchanted. The restaurant was hard to find, lost behind a morass of private condominiums and gated drives. An outdoor kitchen seemed to render the food cold before it hit the table. And Militello was being chastised for not spending enough time on-site. Two months after Mark's in the Grove opened, Herald restaurant critic Geoffrey Tomb wrote: “Is this the beginning of multiunit corporatization? Should we expect Mark Militello? Or Mark Inc.?”