Let’s be clear: this would never have worked in Los Angeles. No, out in SoCal, where visiting a production lot or, more specifically, a TV or movie set is as commonplace as an elementary school field trip to the local science museum it would feel all too commonplace. Not here.
No, in Chicago, in many ways a marked oasis from the entertainment industry despite its size, a concept as seemingly kitschy as Saved by the Max can work. It’s why the hordes were lined up on a recent Monday evening in the city’s hip Wicker Park neighborhood, many wearing “Bayside” T-shirts likely purchased at Urban Outfitters or some other “retro-biting” clothier, all clamoring to be given the privilege of entering the just-opened pop-up restaurant modeled after the diner from the beloved ’90s sitcom Saved By The Bell. Perhaps these folks are eager to relive their youth. Or maybe, like visiting an amusement park, they want to feel as if they’re stepping into an alternate universe. Hell, for all we know they want to just be a part of that new thinghappening in town. In any case, with reservations completely booked up through the end of the restaurant’s three-month run that concludes in August, the roughly 15-20 people here tonight waiting outside the otherwise barren storefront are hoping that, if they’re lucky, the restaurant gods will part the seas and let them in.
It’s with a certain sense of exclusivity and privilege then when we open the door to Saved by the Max. We’re prepared to be impressed. What we are instead is barraged by nostalgia: everything here is specially designed to take you back in time. Where you might ask? Well, of course, to those simpler days. When Zack Morris–Mark-Paul Gosselaar’s blond teenage heartthrob with the cute direct-to-camera narration before Frank Underwood made it creepy–had a permanent seat in detention in Mr. Belding’s office at Bayside High. When Slater and Jessie could be counted on to argue about something trivial before making out by scene’s end. When Screech Powers gave hope to big-nosed nerds everywhere that if they were only slightly clever and a wee bit goofy they too could hang out with the popular crowd. (Thanks for nothing, Screech.)
It’s all here: the Max. Where the cool kids from Bayside came to chill. Beautiful in all its tacky glory. The owners, who dreamed up this idea only this past February and were open for business by June, clearly spent the majority of their quick turnaround time nailing down the faux-diner’s interior. The beauty is in the details here: the jukebox set to A12 (the number for Zack and Kelly’s sacred song); the old-school arcade games in the corner; the KKTY 98.6 radio station booth in the back corner; yes, even the “Belding Stinks” and “Slater Luvz Jessie” notes scribbled on the men’s bathroom walls. Much effort here was spent to cater to the hardcore fan. Saved by the Max’s staff members have also been dutifully trained to reenact the show’s “whoa dude” ’90s-era Joey Lawrence vibe. “Hey, cool kids!” your ultra-enthusiastic server will say. After you explain you need more time before deciding whether you want the Mac and Screech or the Snow White and the Seven Dorks (chicken wings), you’ll be advised to just “Do you!. Go. To. Town.”
It’s no secret that when themed restaurants such as this come along, the cuisine often takes a back seat to the ambience, vibe and décor. Thankfully, Saved by the Max spared no expense. Chef Brian Fisher, from well-respected Schwa, serves some notable culinary flourishes–what could have otherwise been greasy, Disneyworld-esque diner food. How so? Middle Eastern spices coat the aforementioned Snow White chicken wings; Goose Island and coconut milk waffles, not to mention a spiced maple syrup dipping sauce, accompany the Korean fried chicken; even the otherwise simple Grilled Cheese has gruyere, aged cheddar and caramelized mushrooms. The burger, while nothing fancy, is massive and flanked by fresh cut fries. That said, what the restaurant excels at in its menu’s clear creativity it lacks in execution. Much like the experience of visiting the restaurant itself, the dishes won’t exactly make you cry out for seconds.
But it’s a pop-up restaurant after all. It’s meant to be disposable. So yes, as much as it’s fun to chalk up an hour or so to reliving your youth and dedication to a deliberately absurd show geared towards teenagers, chances are like us you’ll be happy you came but not too dismayed that you’ll likely never have the chance to come back.
Everything has its place and time. Like the show to which it pays homage, Saved by the Max will surely enjoy a solid run. Money will be made. Young Chicagoans will Instagram and Snapchat their Bayside-loving hearts out and, if only for a few hours, forget they’re more like Belding now than they care to admit.