Another Perfect Night at Max Fish

The legendary Lower East Side bar is closed again. This time, it might be permanent.

The original Max Fish, photographed in 1997. Photo: Nancy Siesel/The New York Times
The original Max Fish, photographed in 1997. Photo: Nancy Siesel/The New York Times
The original Max Fish, photographed in 1997. Photo: Nancy Siesel/The New York Times

If the Algonquin was New York’s intellectual soul in the ’20s and the White Horse Tavern its swaggering heart in the ’50s, for the final decade of the 20th century, Max Fish was its overworked liver. The high-ceilinged bar on Ludlow Street was a hangout for local painters and foreign musicians, Hollywood stars and Idaho wannabes, the old and cynical, the young and thrilled.

My nights there usually began a few blocks away, in my apartment. Whatever companions I had for the evening would come over to drink bourbon and watch and wait while I applied goody-bag Christian Dior lipstick in a mirror over the sink I used to wash my dishes and brush my teeth. We’d head off to a show at the Mercury Lounge or Lincoln Center, a party at an ad exec’s penthouse or porn cam boy’s apartment.

Wherever we begin the evening, by 11, we are at the Fish. Swing open the heavy glass and wood doors, get a blast of sound from the crowd and a blast of warm air from the heat lamp that fizzles above the doors. The booth in the front window is the spot to be seen, inhabited tonight by a few of the members of Jonathan Fire*Eater, who are looking even nattier than usual for the benefit of the grinning A&R guy that’s picking up the tab.

I hit the bar. Above my head, Suspiria plays soundlessly between a sculpture of a two-foot-long nail and a bas-relief of a pompadoured mook. Harry, who’s friends with everyone, shouts hello over the din and asks if I have been to the new show at the Alleged Gallery next door yet; he’s got a piece in it. Taylor Mead — he’s old enough to be the grandpa of most of the people in this room and, as a former Warhol Factory star, he’s a great-uncle of this scene, at least — waves a hand and smiles wanly at my head of blonde hot-roller curls. “You look like one of my favorite movie stars, Alice Faye. Do you know who Alice Faye is?”

“She used to play Betty Grable’s sister,” I respond. He raises his scotch to Miss Faye and we confer about recent highlights of the Turner Classic Movies schedule.

I meander through a crowd of sideburns and center parts to the Addams Family pinball machine. I pour a fistful of quarters in, giving a once-over to the skateboarders clustered around the adjacent Cruis’n USA video game — the closest these guys get to driving a car. A buddy ducks in for a quick beer before a midnight band rehearsal in a basement down the block and we step outside for a cigarette. The crowd of people hanging outside the bar is a vibe unto itself, and sometimes you can find yourself spending 20 minutes socializing before you even make it inside. Princess Superstar bounces up to me, giddily going off about how she just met the Sugarhill Gang backstage at Tramp’s, and the legends let her swap some rhymes with them.

I swing back into the bar and perch by the window, but Stewart Lupton of Jonathan Fire*Eater nods at me and pats the empty seat next to his. He introduces me to the rep from DreamWorks or Interscope — I’m not sure, as I am distracted by the fact that the guy has brought his own cocktail parasols. Stu and I hit up DreamScope for another round of drinks, alternately flirting with him and each other. I’ve known Stu since he and his bandmates moved into my building after they got out of high school, and he’d come hang out after I got off of my graveyard shift. Two years later, he’s a rock star and I work for the internet, but we’re still smirking at each other over well vodka.

I step up to the bar and Marc pours me a greyhound without even asking what I want as we commiserate on the Knicks’ chances this season and agree they rest on the health of Patrick Ewing. More drinks, more pinball, more people. I slip through the rear door to the adjacent Pink Pony café where the line for the bathroom is only two people long. My buddy Zane, the Columbia grad student who works behind the counter, feeds me half a sandwich and reels off a story about seeing Courtney Love fall over in the middle of Ludlow Street. I insist it would only be news if she were upright and coherent.

As last call is called, the crowd begins to trickle out, getting one last gust of warmth from the heat lamps as they swing open the heavy wood and glass doors. Several of us start slinking toward the back of the bar, scooping up and stacking empties as we go. We slide into a back booth as the corrugated metal gate rattles halfway down and the pool balls clatter free for the last game of the night. My friend Michelle and I begin a mock kung fu battle in Switchblade Sisters/Foxy Brown/chicksploitation fashion, and the half-dozen people draped over the booths cheer us on amid the snorting of bumps and the smoking of bowls. Around 5 a.m., we are finally hustled out of the bar, me taking a few stragglers back to my nearby tenement, drinks still in hand, ready to be topped off with a morning nightcap.

Over the years, my cabinets were filled with enough Max Fish glassware that I would occasionally take some back, getting a perplexed look from the bartenders as I plopped down three empties before ordering my first drink. I even packed a few of them when I moved to Las Vegas a few years later, not that I needed them or they were worth hauling across the country. But in a city where I knew no one, they would be a reminder of the bar where I knew everybody.

Max Fish itself moved not long after I did, although the distance could be measured in tens of feet rather than thousands of miles. The new space on Orchard Street kept up the tradition of art shows, skater dudes, and cheap drinks until, after 31 years, COVID closed its doors. The owner, Ulli Rimkus, hopes to reopen in a new location once the lockdown-reopen-repeat cycle is over. Here’s hoping she does. I’m raising my glass to it, even if it isn’t one that I stole from the bar a couple of decades back.

Another Perfect Night at Max Fish