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Max Burgerworks should have been a great restaurant. Like a privileged kid saddled with a goofy name (and not even a truly awful one like Hubertus, Melvin or Agamemnon, but one only slightly unfortunate) or a Montessori rugrat born with every advantage, it had the potential for doing wonderful things, for becoming something special. And Max, no doubt, was expected to do just that.
1512 Lawrence St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
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Hand-cut fries: $3.50
Fries with guacamole and salsa: $5.50
Fries with chili: $6
Chopped salad: $5/$9
Max Burger: $8.50
Salmon burger: $10.50
Chicken burger: $11
Only Max didn't. And now, after five months of operation, Max is doing nothing more noteworthy than any of its less advantaged contemporaries were already doing seven days a week all over the city. It's the restaurant that should have been great, had every reason to be great, but isn't.
And that's a shame, because this kid still has promise. It's got a good home, right at the corner of 15th and Lawrence streets in Writer Square, smack in the middle of everything downtown, with nearby parking and the kind of moneyed, well-heeled foot traffic most owners would kill for. The slightly subterranean location is bright and well-lit, decked out in a palette of those weird colors you only get when you buy the big box of Crayolas -- mustard and lime and cerise -- with large, contrasting polka dots on the walls. At first glance, it looks like a room made up for a never-ending six-year-old's birthday party, all soft shades and rounded corners. But look a bit longer, and it starts seeming too contrived, too designed, to be just plain fun. Plus, there's a full bar hung with art-glass lamps like upside-down wineglasses -- and I don't know about you, but I don't remember any of my birthday parties being held at a place with a liquor license. Had they been, I'm sure the parents would have all been a whole lot happier. But who knows? Maybe the privileged kids have their own special Chuck E. Cheese's with a cigar bar and martini menu for the adults. If they do, I'll bet it looks a lot like Max Burgerworks -- clean and shiny and perfectly new all the time. I'll bet it even has the same smell -- the odor of precisely nothing at all hanging in the air. No meat on the grill. No onions caramelizing. Nada. Just air, no artificial flavors added.
Max has the benefit of coming from a good family, too, one with a successful and well-respected sibling and parents who know what they're doing. Max is owned and run by Gerard Rudofsky of Zaidy's fame; Gerard's son, Jason; and Greg Waldbaum, an Internet entrepreneur and friend of the Rudofsky clan with roots in the restaurant business: His great-grandmother owned Rosen's Restaurant way back in the day, his aunt was a caterer who happened to do Gerard's bar mitzvah fifty-odd years ago. And it was while cooking at a party for his parents that Waldbaum and the Rudofskys decided the time was right for the gourmet hamburger restaurant Gerard had been dreaming about for thirty years, long before he opened Zaidy's. They found the space (it's the former home of Mel Master's Top Hat, as well as many other eateries), they wrote menus, they picked suppliers. And just like that, Max Burgerworks was born. But it was no accident; it wasn't what you'd call unplanned. The kid burst onto the scene in July with a grand-opening shindig and the potential for a glowing future.
But Max doesn't look too bright right now.
The menu is Max's biggest burden. I like burgers. Everyone likes burgers. (Okay, vegetarians don't like burgers very much, and a simple veggie burger is conspicuously absent, although there is a portobello version.) But the trouble is, by last summer, the upscale-burger thing was already going the way of white rap metal and Madonna's movie career: It was cute at first, and a funny distraction from the norm, but now it's just goddamned annoying. Fifty-dollar truffle-stuffed Kobe (the cow, not the basketball player) burgers in Manhattan. Beef from open-range, organic, pesticide-free cows raised on a strict diet of foie gras and cotton candy, massaged daily by fifteen-year-old Chinese virgins and read poetry every night. Hamburgers served on thirty-grain wheat rolls with artisan mayonnaise and breeds of lettuce heretofore unknown to man. It's way past time for that nonsense to stop. A burger is a burger -- dead cow on bread -- and too much fussiness does nothing but insult the food gods of our grandfathers, for whom a rare patty on a supermarket bun with American cheese and maybe a couple of pickles was just fine. Some innovation is good. But tarting up a hunk of ground beef like you were taking it out for a night on the town is just plain wrong. And a little scary.
But it's not like Max had to become another Mickey D's. Or another New American clone featuring a few special burgers on the board of fare. Since damn near every restaurant in town now has some kind of jumped-up meat patty on its menu, Max had the opportunity to best them by simply doing the burger thing better -- by being innovative without getting excessive, and by keeping the burger in its rightful place as an essential element of cuisine. Rather than doing any of that, though, Max chose to not do much of anything, to take no chances whatsoever and stay right on the yellow line running straight down the middle of the road. Its two big, daring departures from burger-stand staples are a salmon burger with cheddar, smeared with a mystery aioli, and a ground-chicken burger topped by avocado slices, smoked bacon and caramelized onion. That's as exciting as things get.
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