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After three decades, Max's Opera Cafe to close in Palo Alto

Uploaded: Jun 26, 2018
It started 12 years ago, when California Pizza Kitchen opened at Stanford Shopping Center.

Then came Yucca De Lac and The Melt. And in the last two years alone, more than five eateries opened in a renovated wing on the El Camino Real side of the Palo Alto shopping center, with several more slated to open this year.

Dennis Berkowitz, the owner of the longtime Max’s Opera Cafe, said he lost about $300,000 in revenue a year after the first three restaurants opened but was still making a profit. The latest influx of dining options, however, put the final nail in the coffin: a 20 percent drop the first year the remodel was done and an additional 20 percent the following year.

"I thought … maybe it will drop and come back," he said in an interview Monday, sitting outside his 30-year-old restaurant. "It didn't come back."

Max's will close its doors at the end of business this Saturday, June 30.

Owner Dennis Berkowitz put up signs announcing Max's closure on Monday, June 25. Photo by Elena Kadvany.

Berkowitz's lease ended in March. He went month-to-month while he tried to renegotiate with Simon Property Group, which owns the shopping center. He said the company decided against his proposal to split the large restaurant in half, lease one side to a new tenant and allow him to stay with a more affordable rent. His rent has steadily risen to more than $100 per square foot, with a monthly payment of about $50,000.

"Even though we're barely breaking even, in my mind it's not worth it to continue because more bad things are going to happen than good," Berkowitz said. "I want to leave with some dignity."

Simon Property Group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Berkowitz lamented the changing nature of the shopping center. Stanford’s original landlord and director, Rosemary McAndrews, envisioned a "street market" populated by local vendors, including Max's, the market that predated Sigonas Farmers Market, a cafe and Schaub’s Meat Fish & Poultry, among other businesses.

The exterior of Max's Opera Cafe in Palo Alto. Photo by Elena Kadvany.

Simon Property Group purchased the open-air mall in 2003 for $333 million. The company embarked on a significant revitalization of the shopping center in recent years and brought in new tenants, many of them larger food and beverage chains, from True Food Kitchen and Tender Greens to the forthcoming Shake Shack this year.

Pacific Catch, a small Bay Area seafood chain, will take over the Max's space, according to Berkowitz.

Rising rent and increasing competition — not just at the mall, but more widely in Palo Alto — has made it more difficult for a mid-range restaurant like Max's to survive, Berkowitz said.

The first Max's opened in Serramonte in 1978. In 1984, Berkowitz opened a Burlingame location, which he recently remodeled and said is doing well. Franchisees operate three Max's restaurants in Redwood City, San Francisco and Auburn.

Berkowitz also owns The Vault 164 in San Mateo, two restaurants at San Francisco International Airport and does food manufacturing for the airport and other local restaurants.

Max's has long been known for its singing servers, corned beef and pastrami sandwiches and large slices of cake. The restaurant’s tagline is "everything you've always wanted to eat."

Berkowitz said he's sad to leave Palo Alto but encouraged customers who want their Max's "fix" to visit the Burlingame restaurant.

"We had 30 years. The last two years have been difficult. Twenty-eight out of 30 -- that gets you in the hall of fame," he said. "I'm still standing, right?"
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Posted by zap, a resident of another community,
on Jun 26, 2018 at 10:39 am

I used to love the Reuban sandwich there. But years ago they cheaped out on the meat and what was great pastrami or corned beef was replaced by something that tasted like meat boiled in plain water for 2 days.

Posted by LadyBarron, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jun 26, 2018 at 10:54 am

"he lost about $300,000 a year after the first three restaurants opened but was still making a profit"

Posted by Common sense, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Jun 26, 2018 at 11:48 am

From the context, Berkowitz was clearly comparing total SALES figures before and after the new competition. (I agree that it could've been expressed more clearly.)

Posted by Common sense, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Jun 26, 2018 at 11:52 am

"Simon Property Group ... brought in new tenants, many of them larger food and beverage chains..."

-- A trend already explicit years earlier, when Simon Group made unwelcome the mall's very successful independent coffeehouse-roaster, an "anchor" business of the original "European-style street market" (per an article I linked once before: Web Link ) Simon Group was clear at the time about preferring Starbucks for its "national chain and national marketing."

Keep in mind, when Starbucks first became a national chain, it was celebrated for bringing flavorful coffee to many parts of the US that never saw much of it before. 20th-century mainstream US coffee, "permitting you to see all the way to the bottom of the cup when it's filled" (Paul Fussell), reminded Marcella Hazan, when newly landed in the US, of the water from rinsing an empty coffee pot in Europe. But parts of the Bay Area already had a very long tradition of independent coffee houses, espresso bars, and local roasters, against which Starbucks represented mediocrity, a step down, at similar price. It was as if Simon Group's Indiana management, ignorant of the market for local artisanal sourdoughs, banished them for Wonder Bread with its "national chain[s] and national marketing."

As went Palo Alto Coffee Roasting Co., so now goes Max's Opera Café. Stand by for more "larger food and beverage chains."

Posted by zap, a resident of another community,
on Jun 26, 2018 at 12:01 pm

", so now goes Max's Opera Café. Stand by for more "larger food and beverage chains."

Well read the yelp reviews. For about 8 months most of them say Max's had lousy service, smaller portions than the past, and just plain bad food. Don't see how that is Simon's fault

Posted by Common sense, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Jun 26, 2018 at 12:16 pm

zap, you know from the article that the big-chain competition Berkowitz described began 12 years ago (coincident with the date of the article I linked about the Stanford center's new direction) and accelerated after that. No doubt service declined in the last 8 months as you mentioned, but from Berkowitz's comments above, that was well after the writing was on the wall about his business. I used to enjoy Max's too, but haven't been there in recent years what with the departure of various nearby businesses that used to make the Center stand out more from the average shopping mall.

The change in emphasis among Stanford Center's businesses was already underway by 2006, when the Metro article appeared about Palo Alto Coffee Roasting Co. What has happened since has been the gradual playing out of the newer direction, initiated fundamentally with the mall's sale.

Posted by Will Miss Max's, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Jun 26, 2018 at 1:07 pm

We will miss Max's.

The fall off in patronage was apparent to those of us who are regulars. I don't disagree that Simons bringing in national chains did hurt their patronage.

We used to wait 30 mins for a the place is open on Friday night...and its been ages since we heard the piano playing and wait staff singing.

Max's had a soul. You know what you were getting and it was comfort food, served in excellent portions, and consistently tasty.

Good luck getting a well prepared brisket at Shake Shack.

Lone diners will miss their promise to never say "only 1" when arriving by yourself.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jun 26, 2018 at 2:24 pm

I was never a fan of Max's, or Cheesecake Factory come to that.

But I am a fan of table service. It seems to me that we are losing all our table service restaurants for order at counter, type meals. These are not suitable for those who take a while to read a menu, possibly needing to change glasses to do so. They are not suitable for seniors who may need to take a while to dig out a purse or wallet while holding a walking frame.

I am beginning to think that the Palo Alto minimum wage and/or the ability to hire staff who want to be able to park near their job when they finish a shift at 11.00 pm may have a lot more to do with this than just high rents and more competition.

Can we have some restaurants with nearby disabled parking and places for customers to sit while waiting, and to sit while reading the menu. And we would also like some table service. Please.

Posted by Tom, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Jun 26, 2018 at 8:08 pm

Back in the day Max's was awesome! The singing waiters and waitresses, the terrific food, the friendly atmosphere, the large portions, the macaroon crumble ....all good! We had our wedding rehearsal dinner there during November 1988 (with a coupon it was $100 for about 10 people!) and I'll never forget when my wife burst into tears hearing Cole Porter's "It's a Wonderful World" being sung while she was pregnant with our son who later played the song on the piano for her many years later. An end of an era for sure.

Posted by Family, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jun 26, 2018 at 11:20 pm

We had many wonderful meals and groups there over the years. We will truly miss this place. The food was so much better than the other Max's (not sure how the one is SF stayed open, such bad food). It was a nice, reasonably priced experience! Will especially miss the cheesecake.

It would have improved our patronage if there had been more GF options. I realize people think it's a fad, but it really helps those with medical reasons. But mainly, we go to everything on that side of town less these days because of traffic.

There was always something for everyone, though, regardless. Big sad face on losing another of the affordable family options with good food around town.

Posted by MPer, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Jun 27, 2018 at 10:31 am

I frequented Max's for years, however, the place started going down hill many years ago. the service an quality have been horrible for years and the food has gotten very expensive. Not sure how the previous commentor thinks Max's an 'affordable' food option. $14 for a smallish sandwich is not affordable. No Max's is going out of business because it stopped being a good place to eat. period.

oh and the comment that it will be replaced by a national chain, it's not. Another local chain will take the spot. i am all for local business, but bad is bad and that's what killed Max's.

Posted by julie armitano, a resident of University South,
on Jun 27, 2018 at 10:31 am

julie armitano is a registered user.

We will miss Max.
My family love the restuatant.

Posted by Me, a resident of Palo Alto Hills,
on Jun 27, 2018 at 7:09 pm

Not sure why I'm even posting but it's probsbly best Max's closes. While the food has remained constantly good, their service has been on a steadily downward trajectory for a long time. Simple things like bread not being served, kids not getting their drinks or ice cream with their meals, to not enough wait staff so long waits to be served. On Father's Day they were short wait staff and while the restaurant was half empty, we still waited 30 minutes to be served. Seems the owners “lamenting" was contagious to his staff. Alas probably better they close. Hopefully the employees can find work elsewhere.

Posted by West485, a resident of Woodside: other,
on Jun 28, 2018 at 11:38 am

Max's used to have wonderful food, great service and the singing waiters. I had three meals there in the last year and two of them were terrible, tasteless, mushy stuff that I should have sent back. The real Max's died a long time ago, it is just an empty shell now. I have been missing the old Max's for a long time already.

Posted by cvvhrn, a resident of Midtown,
on Jun 28, 2018 at 12:01 pm

cvvhrn is a registered user.

Max's was a Bay Area institution back in the day and spanned the Peninsula. But as with many things slipped. The last time I ventured to the Stanford location it was at best a 2 star affair.

I will miss the patty melt, the ridiculous chocolate covered macaroon that were the size of a small rabbit, The pastrami, and of course the brew yourself Iced tea which is something we do at home all the time thanks to them.

The old Max's will be missed, not the present incarnation.

Posted by Jennifer, a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables,
on Jun 28, 2018 at 1:13 pm

I'm so sad. Max's is where my husband, the grandparents and I went after our 6 month old son went through a 7 1/2 hour heart surgery. I have had many good memories (and meals) there.

It seems as though ambiance doesn't really count for much anymore!

Posted by mper, a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle,
on Jun 28, 2018 at 1:50 pm

There was a time when we were at the mall nearly every day - walking my little one around, eatting lunch, playing near the frog fountain with other children, patronizing kid-friendly businesses and the book store and coffee place. Stanford Shopping Center has, over the last many years, become "anywhere USA" -- could be any mall, anywhere. We rarely shop, or eat there anymore.

Posted by Local94028, a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge,
on Jun 28, 2018 at 3:03 pm

Max's at Stanford was great because it had table service, a bar, a big variety of meals, and homecooked deserts. I am not a fan of the current trend is self serve, plastic trays, paper cups and hamburgers, sandwiches and pizza. Ugh. like we need another burger joint... with so many 5guys, The Habit, Whalburger...
I find it ironic that people are criticizing the service when what seems to be popular is no service at all.
Interesting that while the stores in Stanford get more and more upscale (Hermes), the food gets cheaper (grilled Cheese, hamburgers?!).
At least Max's provided some variety. Would rather see a full service restaurant take its place.

Posted by Chris Gaither, a resident of Mayfield,
on Jun 28, 2018 at 4:21 pm

I will miss the vegetable stuffed baked potatoes, and the hot served breads with butter. My wife and I would go there before her shift started on Sundays at Bloomingdales, and sometimes on Thursday evenings.

Really sad to see so much leave Palo Alto. But, we will not be going to Burlingame.

Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jun 28, 2018 at 8:47 pm

Oh no! Used to love Max's back in the 90's. To eat steaks or pick up a sandwich for lunch or a picnic it was a wonderful place, but I stopped going frequently enough that each time I went something was just not as good. When I went to Max's it was not about price, so that was not a factor, it was quality and service, and I have to say cleanliness as well. Have not gone there for quite a while now, yet sorry to see this, always had hope it would get better.

Posted by Common sense, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Jun 28, 2018 at 10:41 pm

Many good memories of Max's posted here. I have some too. This must be one of Elena's most popular restaurant articles.

One or two commenters may have missed some of the article content. Dennis Berkowitz said there that Max's felt financial stress from unprecedented competition starting in 2006 and greatly accelerating two years ago. Making clearly plausible that these stresses contributed to the declining Max's experience over those same years as reported by zap, MPer, Me, West485, and cvvhm above. To clarify my own earlier comment: no, Max's (unlike Palo Alto Coffee Roasting Co.) won't be replaced by a corporate chain (not yet, anyhow). But Max's newfound competition came from multiple such chains, starting 12 years ago with California Pizza Kitchen as explained in the article. Max's loss of business followed, Berkowitz said, and finally his decision to close. And the Simon Group of Indiana expressed a preference for major chains, after it bought the Stanford Center.

Posted by Diner, a resident of another community,
on Jun 30, 2018 at 10:31 am

Pacific Catch is great. Wonderful food and drinks. I love their mai tai's.

Posted by 30 year resident, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jul 1, 2018 at 7:55 pm

Three decades of living here; never ate there; won't miss it.

Posted by fwiw, a resident of Woodside: other,
on Jul 2, 2018 at 11:07 am

> Three decades of living here; never ate there; won't miss it.

Thank you for letting us know. Please share your considered opinion about any movies that you haven't seen.

Posted by 30 year resident, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jul 2, 2018 at 7:47 pm


I wrote that I never ate there, not that I hadn't seen the place. I passed by Max's outdoor seating section regularly for thirty years.

I'll elaborate: For thirty years, the plated food looked unappealing. Certainly, it didn't visually present any reason to try it out. And a gimmick of "Opera" singing -- when performed -- was more annoying than pleasant, even in passing by. Perhaps sit-down guests had a similar reaction, and that's why over the years I heard such "Opera" singing decline; often, then only from time-to-time, then never.

Indeed, the music has stopped in an existential sense for Max's Opera Cafe: it is finished. As I wrote before, I won't miss it.

That is all.

Posted by Penny, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Jul 13, 2018 at 4:50 pm

Will miss you Max's. To anyone who refers to Stanford Shopping Center as a "Mall": it's not a mall it's a shopping "Center" - this is a difference! Thanks.

Posted by Edward, a resident of Mountain View,
on Jul 15, 2018 at 1:02 pm

Burlingame it shall be!! The whole area of Mt View and PA and Los Altos are turning into a shyte hole cause of these damn companies and all their influx. They are ruining our areas. Now businesses cannot even survive. It is high time we complain to the cities for them to put a halt on all this. Oh wait, they will not listen. All they want is monies to go forth to the retirement funds. And then the property management companies are taking a lot of monies from those that lease. Insanity. Small companies are just trying to make a living. This has turned into PURE GREED and its all PURE BS!!

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