A Restaurant Maxim

When Maxim's, a Houston dining institution for half a century, served its last meal in January 2001, it was expected to reopen within a year as the Pappas brothers' first French restaurant. But a spokesperson for the chain says the Maxim's renovation is on hold.

Rumors throughout the restaurant industry have attributed the holdup to a problem involving a liquor license. With Lakewood Church due to occupy Compaq Center when the Houston Rockets move to their new home downtown for the 2003-2004 season, a restaurant will not be able to obtain a liquor license within 100 yards of the stadium.

But that won't be a problem for the Pappas brothers, as they already own a valid license for their restaurant-in- transition at the corner of Richmond and Timmons, practically adjacent to Compaq Center. Pete Felton, an agent for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, says Maxim's active permit expires October 7, but the restaurant is grandfathered in with a right to renew the license when the current one expires.

Regina Romere, a spokesperson for Pappas Restaurants, would not say why the ambitious renovation has been interrupted. "We've got several big projects right now, so that's kind of been put on the back burner," she says. "We've gutted the inside, but that's as far as we've gotten."

It's possible, however, that the changing tenancy of Compaq Center is a factor in the chain's reshuffling of priorities. As Ronnie Bermann, Maxim's former owner, points out, "When the Rockets were going great guns, we had a lot of business before and after games. When they stopped winning and their attendance dropped, it had an effect on us."

With the Rockets leaving the neighborhood, to be replaced by a church congregation that's unlikely to run up large drinking tabs at nearby restaurants, the business prospects for a renewed Maxim's would seem to be impaired. Bermann says more than half his profits came from liquor sales.

Did he sell at the right time? "It seems that way," he says. Although the sales price is confidential, sources close to the buyer and seller say it was around $3 million. Bermann owned the building that housed his restaurant, but the land the structure occupies is owned by Crescent Real Estate Equities, the company that developed Greenway Plaza, including Compaq Center (formerly the Summit). Under the terms of his contract with Crescent, Bermann could not sell the building unless it would continue to house a restaurant.

Bermann says that when the sale was finalized in December 2000, "the Pappas people were very optimistic about reopening within nine or ten or 12 months…I saw an artist's rendering of what they had in mind. They were going to change the entrance, and it looked gorgeous."

The Pappas family opened a chain of moderately priced Mexican and seafood restaurants in Houston in the 1980s. In the '90s they ventured into the upscale market, most successfully with Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. Maxim's was to be their most ambitious undertaking to date. So far, the Maxim's logo remains in front of the building at 3755 Richmond, but Bermann expects that name, which was appropriated from a famous restaurant in Paris, to be one of the only things that stays the same.

Started by Bermann's father, Camille, in 1949, the Houston Maxim's featured scarlet velvet walls, sprawling chandeliers, a vast wine cellar and rich New Orleans Creole-style food. The restaurant boomed in the 1970s, catering to oil executives who officed in and near Greenway Plaza. Bermann began working at Maxim's as a busboy, but he soon shared management duties with his father. The son took over ownership when Camille died in 1991.

In the 1990s Maxim's continued to garner prestigious awards, such as four stars (out of a possible five) from Mobil. But Bermann had difficulty updating the cuisine and decor without offending his longtime, and now elderly, patrons.

"We did get accused of being sometimes stuffy," he admits. But when they relaxed the dress code, some diners complained that Maxim's was losing its character. "Fine dining is changing," Bermann says. "Now you can go to a really fine restaurant, like Anthony's, without a jacket or a tie. It doesn't mean you're going to be sitting next to a motorcycle gang."

Nevertheless, Maxim's 1950s-style opulence did not attract many 1990s yuppies. "I'm not sure about us being dated," Bermann says, "but it was time for a change."

He claims his restaurant was still profitable in its final years. "I was happy that we went out on a good note," he says. In his last year of operating Maxim's, it was named Restaurant of the Century by Texas Monthly.

After selling Maxim's, Bermann began J&R Catering with Jeff Jamail. They serve parties of up to 100 and re-create some of Maxim's signature dishes, such as the Greek red caviar spread, tarama.

He says he misses the people of Maxim's but not the headaches. "When we started getting into automation and computers and everything, we were a dinosaur."

And he's not saddened by the destruction of the restaurant's posh interior. "I guess they wanted to start from scratch," says Bermann. "They wanted their own personality."

But it's a mystery what that personality will be. And when it will be.

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Alan Truex