People are always trying to bring a taste of somewhere else to whatever place they now call home. Immigrant cuisine, nativist cuisine, fusion cuisine, recipes passed down through generations -- they're all attempts at preserving across time and distance memories that are tied up in food. This is a noble pursuit, but sometimes it can go too far. And while Max Gill & Grill hasn't crossed that line, it's definitely smudging it with the toe of its Topsider.
For years, this comfortable, broken-in space on Old South Gaylord was home to Hemingway's Key West Grill -- a paean to all things salty and tropical, a hideaway that claimed to bring a little bit of Key West to the Mile High City, which never made much sense to me. The two are diametrically opposed in both attitude and geography: Denver has the mountains and all that goes with that, Key West has the beach -- and Hemingway's Key West Grill never had much of anything that interested me.
Last year, though, Ernest Hemingway's estate forced a name change on the decades-old restaurant. Hemingway's became Max Gill & Grille, took on some additional partners (courtesy of a buy-in from the Wash Park Grille just down the street) and tweaked its concept. Now, rather than owing its allegiance to a literary icon or tourist-bedeviled island, Max is simply a seafood restaurant. The decor is still a classed-up version of every Crow's Nest/Rusty Scupper seafood shanty on either coast, the service casual, the room warm and inviting provided you're willing to drop fifty bucks on lunch for two. And to a certain degree, the food has been improved by daily deliveries, oyster and fish specials, and a kitchen crew that can sometimes let a protein speak for itself. I've had surprisingly good ribs here; crabcakes gunked up with too many spices, vegetables and fillers, but still thoughtfully mounted on a mound of plain lump crabmeat; swordfish tacos; a lobster roll presented plainly with just a dab of lemon and mayo but screwed up by a less-than-delicious young Maine lobster; and a generous cioppino fit for a Gourmet magazine centerfold.
Granted, Max is still a seafood restaurant one mile above sea level and a thousand from the nearest ocean, but that kind of geographic conundrum can be solved by a good contract with FedEx. Transplanting Key West to Denver, though? That was never going to happen.