Restaurant Review

Max’s Seafood Cafe

One thing that never flusters a 97-year-old restaurant is a culinary fad. So at Max’s—a handsome tavern founded by German immigrant Joseph Fred Leisinger in 1912—you won’t find sous-vide duck breast, tapas, or powdered olive oil.

Exterior shot of Max's Seafood Cafe in Gloucester City.
Photo courtesy of maxsseafoodcafe.com.

Instead you will find yesterday’s fads, those that are still fun to eat and offer good value.

The reliable mainstays include dishes like pecan-crusted salmon on a cedar plank, topped with ginger-cranberry chutney; fried calamari tossed with chunks of blue cheese and zingy buffalo-wing sauce; and coconut shrimp with sweet-potato fries. Even when Max’s goes off the deep end—as with baked tilapia crusted with a scallop crab and spinach mix and topped with a thicket of crispy leeks—the results are nothing to be ashamed of.

Red maples and wooden benches flank the café; an Irish flag flutters in the breeze. Inside, penny tiles coat the bar floor, and vintage two-blade fans turn lazily under the pressed tin ceiling. The original yellowed licensing papers and old photos of the founder line the walls.

A financial advisor with no restaurant experience aside from bartending in college, Thomas Monahan took over in 2000, following his great-grandmother and uncle (both Gloucester City bar owners) into the family business. Monahan, who hasn’t given up his day job, is a fixture at Max’s, chatting up regulars gathered at the bar (the original, imported by Leisinger from Germany), running food, and carefully tipping a bottle of Schneider Weisse into a tall, curvaceous glass with a deft swirl-pour, swirl-pour motion.

“All the good stuff in this beer is at the bottom of the bottle,” he told me. “You really need to get all of it in there. Look at how it’s changing color in the glass.” Indeed, the wheat beer was going from tawny gold to a woodsy hue not unlike the mahogany wainscoting that wraps Max’s dining rooms.

“I’m definitely the resident beer geek,” he said later. “After drinking Coors all my life, a friend introduced me to Chimay in college. It was my first experience with real beer.” Chimay White, Red, and Blue are among the 8 taps and 50 bottles Monahan pours at Max’s, including imports (Gaffel Kölsch and Fuller’s ESB) and local crafts (Dogfish Head Raison D’Etre, Lancaster Strawberry Wheat, and Jersey brews from Flying Fish). Wine drinkers are not forgotten; grape aficionados can choose from 160 selections.

Executive chef Matt Selenski’s huge fish-focused menu—“I probably tripled its size when I took over in 2003,” says the Marlton native, late of Filomena’s in Berlin—complements the easy drinking. Though far from perfect (case in point: too much Ritz cracker, scallion, and onion in the crab-stuffed shrimp), most of what I ate was refreshingly uncomplicated. Even Selenski’s more creative efforts, like the Mediterranean-inspired grilled ahi steak glossed in sun-dried tomato butter, or a twist on shepherd’s pie (succulent scallops replace the traditional beef and lamb), tasted simple and right.

Few things go as well with Monahan’s beer selection as the creamy, lemony Dungeness crab dip or the mussels prepared five different ways. Both the robust Belgian (with green apples, Andouille sausage, thyme, and lager) and the fragrant, fiery Thai (with ginger, lemongrass, green finger chilies, and coconut milk) came in  brimming bowls without a touch of grit. On the other hand, about half the middleneck clams I ate at Max’s—in the frutta di mare, New England seafood pot, and bowl of steamers—contained sand.

More mussels, shrimp, scallops, and tender calamari joined the clams atop the frutta di mare; underneath, the pound of angel hair could have used another touch of the chunky marinara. The seafood pot joined a mellow broth of white wine, clam juice, and Old Bay seasoning with all the same fish, plus steamed blue points and an ear of sweet, juicy corn—but minus the menu’s promised lobster tail. No matter; I can’t imagine the crustacean being any more delicious than the supple, buttery blues.

Oysters were fine, served every which way. Blue points and sweet local Cape May salts are always available, with a third species—like the cold, briny Emerald Coves from British Columbia—rotating each month. Have them raw splashed with traditional red wine mignonette, or better yet, cornmeal crusted and fried with a sidecar of bright-green pesto aioli.

Selenski makes all desserts in-house, with the exception of the crunchy pastry shell for his heavenly chocolate chip-studded ricotta cannoli. Some need tweaking—too much overly sweet whipped cream on the Key lime pie; a limp crust on the bittersweet chocolate-Guinness crème brûlée—while others shine. To wit: cinnamony croissant bread pudding with apples and walnuts, and moist three-layer carrot cake speckled with chopped pineapple and frosted in cream cheese whipped with coconut milk.

Servers got frazzled at peak hours, but there was never a shortage of familial je ne sais quoi. When a dropped entrée was the collateral damage one extra busy night, a replacement was rushed out—not to mention no charge for five beers and four desserts. I’m quite certain they hadn’t sussed me out. No, it was an apology of the incredibly generous, resolutely old school variety.

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Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
    American - Seafood
  • Price Range:
    Moderate
  • Max’s Seafood Cafe
    34 North Burlington St
    Gloucester, NJ 08030
  • Hours:
    Mon. - Thurs., 11 am to 10 pm; Fri., 11 am to 11 pm; Sat., 12 am to 11 pm; Sun., 1 pm to 8 pm

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