Max's Wine Dive pulls off the admirable trick of being a chain restaurant without acting or feeling like one. Based out of Houston, the company sells itself with the motto "Fried chicken and champagne — why the hell not?" But don't expect trailer-park kitsch. Max's has made canny moves by opening in places like laser-hip Washington Avenue in Houston and in Governor's Park here in Denver, sliding in comfortably alongside its neighbors on the block. Yet with so many spots vying for your happy-hour dollars, Max's needs to do something that the locals don't.
You might think that means big ol' plates of fried chicken ($18) served with mashed potatoes, collard greens and arrogant triangles of Texas toast. The sight of these steaming dishes hefted around the dining room and that slight scent of crispy skin — we're all in, right? Not so fast: We happy-hour stalwarts must stick to the cheaper and slightly less exciting afternoon menu available from 4 to 6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. to close Monday through Friday. Luckily, that includes wine.
If you're the kind of person who shuns the dainty pours of more pretentious wine bars, Max's is your sort of place. That's not a dig, as you'll find sympathetic souls on weekday afternoons after a work day, a light but enthusiastic crowd taking advantage of happy-hour wine discounts. You can peruse a list of more than twenty discounted glasses on the happy-hour list to decide whether to splurge or get sozzled on the cheap. On the low end, there's the house red or white for $5 a pour; at the high end, you'll find Ridge Vineyards Zinfandel at $13.50. Right in the middle is a glass of Prosecco for $7, a surprisingly challenging, mossy variety to boot. Infinite Monkey Theorem wines as well as eclectic labels from around the world are on offer, and you can grab a bottle off the rack to take home. For the more beer-oriented, there are also $3 domestic and local drafts.
Along with that fried chicken, there are plenty of other full-priced temptations to get you to pry open your wallet. With plates like buffalo carpaccio ($14) topped with truffle aioli and Caribbean-style shrimp sofrito ($20) — paired, if you wish, with a side of grits ($4) — executive chef Shane Way's menu flirts with pretension and then tries to subvert it — though it's difficult to plead populism when your menu boasts a $20 burger. Yes, that's a full Jackson for a sandwich, even one that's loaded with pulled pork, bacon and chipotle aioli.
The happy-hour menu isn't nearly as extravagant, but don't worry: Bacon is most certainly involved. The bruschetta snack ($7) is smeared with tomato-onion-bacon chutney and topped with lemon-zinged ricotta and a balsamic reduction, a tangy combination that ends up a little empty. (Subtlety isn't Max's specialty.) I didn't have high hopes for the street taco of the day (two for $6), described by my server as "chicken." But Max's has taught me not to doubt Texas tacos, as the chicken here was bright red with marinade and delightfully briny. Crema and freshly diced pico helpfully countered some of the spice and sodium.
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Even if you're forsaking fried chicken, there's fatty fun to be had. The man candy snack ($5) is just a mug of thick-cut bacon, glazed and spiced — and that's just fine. It's a sticky dessert with a spicy pickle that makes for a surprisingly appropriate companion, but for a little extra porky fun, try breaking up the bacon and adding it to your tacos or bruschetta.
Max's works best when it's serving up this kind of indulgence, ideally alongside a carefully chosen glass of vino to balance the crazy. Sure, the proto-hipsters of Fort Worth may be experiencing similar pleasures, but this happy hour doesn't feel like it came from a box.
Don't Miss: For a quieter evening than the one promised by the margarita joints and cocktail bars down the street, Max's Wine Dive offers a late-night happy hour with the same happy discounts on wine glasses and draws of beer, plus $5 "premium well" drinks. The best deal might be the $10 burger-and-beer combo, a sure bet when the competition is busy wiping down the grill for the night.