Saved By The Max | ★★ | American | $$ | 1941 W North Avenue
Before my first visit to Saved by the Max–the pop up restaurant in Chicago’s Wicker Park recreating the teen sitcom–my host emailed to ask, at the last minute, if I had any food allergies that the chef needed to know about.
I couldn’t help but consider how the characters from the 1989-1993 pulp TV show had it easier. Jessie Spano’s “I’m just so excited, and I’m JUST SO SCARED!” rant was born from a 36-hour addiction to caffeine. In 2016, it may have just as feasibly been due to the cross-contamination from all manner of illicit substances lurking in The Max’s kitchen–gluten, tree nuts, a rogue egg white.
Times had changed. And so had The Max.
Saved by the Max opens today for a three-month run. It’s a real restaurant built to recreate The Max: the Happy Days-esque hangout from Saved by the Bell. The NBC-sanctioned restaurant, imagined by Beauty Bar partner Derek Berry in a Facebook post he swears was never meant to go live before it was picked up by national media, is a nearly perfect recreation of the set from television. And now, with many of Saved by the Bell‘s fans entering their late 20s and 30s, there’s a real market for the nostalgia factor. The restaurant’s initial one-month run sold out in 10 minutes. Two more months were added and also sold out quickly. Rumors are already swirling that it could be open even longer.
If the entire idea of a restaurant based upon a short-lived TV show sounds silly, well, it is. But whether we seek the opportunity to sleep in a Van Gogh Airbnb, or attend an interactive version of Alice in Wonderland, we’re at a place in time obsessed with immersive recreations of pseudo-realities where you don’t just view art–you live inside it for a while.
And life at The Max is just as you remember it, decades later. The tables are lacquered in the squiggly peanuts of bacterio, and the walls covered in zigzagging geometric cutouts–both iconic statements in the Memphis design movement, which Saved by the Bell‘s Pacific Palisades sets and credits were based upon, and faithful reproductions of the fit and finish of The Max itself.
The main door and stage area look just as they do on the show, too. Never mind that the door does not open, and the glass bricks that envelop the space are actually just paper printouts. You will find yourself looking for the right moment to don some culturally insensitive costume in some makeshift dance contest–though I had not packed on my person a geisha robe, luau skirt, pineapple bra and fruit headdress, or the gold chains and balloon pants of early hip-hop artists.
The space really is convincing, in a satisfying bit of pandering to your shameful viewing habits of yore. The design was spearheaded by Ray Paseka from Westclox Studios, who watched and re-watched the show’s scenes from The Max to build a greasy spoon simulacrum. Meanwhile, NBC loaned a few props, and show creators even chimed in with advice–giving feedback on elements like the slanted shape of the pink doorframe, which was often cut off in broadcast.
But the true otherworldliness of the space comes from the soundscape. It’s 45 minutes of theme music and interscene riffs, deftly cut by Berry himself, who has a background in audio design. In case you cannot remember, these sound something like an electric guitar played by a clown who is amidst a very earnest tryout for a hair band.
Some liberties have been taken. Purists may question the addition of a bar and open-air kitchen that’s conveniently located in the angle never seen on the Saved by the Bell set. (You aren’t fooling anyone, Berry.) Furthermore, placement of Kelly’s locker, which greets visitors at the front door, or Mr. Belding’s office, a nook in part of the diner that lacks sightlines to the stage, may be jarring to foodies and historians alike who’ve visited for a truly authentic experience. If Zack Morris’s phone worked in a selfie booth, that’s certainly news to both me and Martin Cooper.
Similarly, anyone expecting–even hoping–for a gelatinous pile of cheese fries dumped into a red plastic wire basket will be severely disappointed. The menu has been built by chef Brian Fisher, who hails from Schwa where he served up quail egg ravioli and pad thai with jellyfish noodles. At Saved by the Max, he promises to keep vegetables seasonal, food relatively local, and even serves poutine.
In a nod to the show, Fisher serves up a double decker Bayside Burger–a pair of four-ounce patties with a slick slathering of Kewpie mayonnaise and melted American cheese. Like the Goose Island marinated A.C. (pulled pork) Sliders, it’s neither mediocre, nor superb. Grabbing the cast-iron ramekin of Mac ‘n’ Screech, I burned my hand. It had been baked at a high enough temperature that the fats separated from the dairy proteins leaving a small oil spill of grease. Like Screech himself, I wondered if its all-around unappealing-ness was the true genius of the dish.
However, the burger’s accompanying extra-thick steak fries were among my favorite in the city, with their surprisingly deep-brown fry. I craved a tacky red basket full of them, but they’re laced just scarcely enough on the plate for each one to feel special.
Another standout was Tori’s Fried Chicken. You may remember Tori as the biker chick who showed up awkwardly in the show’s final season to woo Zack’s preppy heart, but Berry remembers her as an early TV crush. On the plate, the chicken is given love, too, with a brined thigh cooked sous vide, fried deep, and by some hijinks of physics even more powerful than that that which transported me to this diner of an historical teenybopper set, remains no less crispy despite bathing in a spiced maple syrup and its generous layer of funky Korean hot sauce.
The drinks I sampled are just okay. The “I’m So Excited”–a cocktail with Absolut vodka, Red Bull tropical, pamplemousse rosé, brandied lingonberry reduction, and lemon juice tastes more like a Long Island iced tea than the tears of a 23-year-old woman pretending to be a high school student. But maybe that’s for the best. We all know how drinking too much ended up for Zack.
Still, the dining experience in this magical land where every waitress is a Kelly and every song on the jukebox is “A-12” is better than it has any excuse to be. Apparently, Saved by the Bell‘s own show creators originally imagined The Max as a knock-off Ed Debevic’s. Squint and you can definitely see the resemblance. Despite being just as campy, however, Saved by the Max is much less cloying, inviting you to be more of a spectator than unwilling participant. Though when Berry wonders aloud to me whether a Saved by the Max could be open for a decade rather than a three-month run, I’m curious how long the fun could last.
Just how large is our appetite for seasonal-local nostalgia? Be it a Van Gogh Airbnb or a Saved by the Bell diner, it’s impossible to predict the shelf life on these Disneyland experiences. But we’re all tweens at heart, and who can resist the opportunity to live in a pubescent fever dream for a little while?
Truth be told, other restaurants that spend years developing a concept are rarely so well articulated. From the decor, to the music, to the food, to the 1-900-CRUSHED on the pay phone, Saved by the Max is right in script. Then again, it was 27 years in the making.
Yes, you are that old.
All Photos (unless otherwise noted): David Miller