Can a 91-year-old hot dog joint also be a trendy hot spot along the Jersey Shore? The new Max’s Bar & Grill walks the line.
When I first step into Max’s Bar & Grill in Long Branch, NJ, third-generation owner Jennifer Maybaum is putting some finishing touches on the newly renovated space. (I was there just before Memorial Day and the holiday traditionally marks the Jersey Shore’s unofficial start to the summer tourist season.)
“I didn’t root through my mother’s garage for nothing,” Maybaum says as she hangs the hand-drawn vintage laminated signs that had previously lined the walls of Max’s for decades.
The bright colors of the old-school advertisements for chili and cheese hot dogs pop off the freshly painted wall. They make a bold statement in their juxtaposition to the redesigned aesthetic of the restaurant. They appear to say, “We’re still here.”
Inside Max’s is now a space that pushes the boundaries of modern design. The exposed rafters and cinder block walls lend a raw, edgy vibe to the open-concept barroom. The sleek counter and wood tables invite patrons to pull up a stool and enjoy from the wide selection of fresh, local craft beers. Giant garage doors let in light and open up to an umbrella-lined terrace with table service along Matilda Avenue. Updated menu items like lobster-topped hot dogs and specials such as bison burger sliders keep up with the modern trends. The upbeat bartenders and attentive waitstaff are friendly and personable. The space accommodates live music.
Some Things Never Change
Patrons have a choice to make as they go through the front door. New-school to the right, old-school to the left.
“None of us would be here if it weren’t for the old Max’s,” Maybaum reminds the staff. Max’s remains one of the oldest hot dog stands in New Jersey.
For all the new features, the classic Max’s shines through.
Established in 1928 on the Long Branch boardwalk, this iconic hot dog restaurant has occupied its current location since 1984. Its history is evident throughout the place. Pictures from the 1970s blown up into glossy murals pay homage to the restaurant’s storied past. Framed, sun-beaten autographed photos of celebrities who have chowed down on their famous dogs line the walls. Even the flat top griddle that cooks the hot dogs is the original from the boardwalk days. It’s been maintained with love throughout the decades.
“You can see in the photos that the boardwalk location had garage doors too,” says Maybaum. “Everything comes around again.”
If Hot Dogs Could Talk…
“Our hot dogs speak for themselves,” says Maybaum. She adds, “You can get one with all the toppings you want, but it’s not necessary. It’s just as good plain. It has to be. That’s what sets Max’s apart from the others.”
Max’s has always used Schikhaus hot dogs; 80% beef and 20% pork, natural casing, four to a pound. Take it from me—this is a relatively rare, unique, high quality hot dog to serve around these parts. Plus, everything alongside the hot dog speaks to the quality of the experience. They proudly showcase the brands they use: Heinz ketchup and green relish, Gulden’s mustard, B&H red pepper relish. This type of transparency isn’t common at a lot of hot dog establishments. Other places guard the products they use like trade secrets.
Not at Max’s. “We only use quality products, and we want everyone to know it,” says Maybaum.
Nearly everything else on the menu is prepared from a home recipe, including Mrs. Max’s famous kraut. No longer served from communal hot pots like some old-timers will remember, it’s still available upon request. In a nod to the past, the kraut is individually served in a little, personal pot.
A Jersey Shore Staple
You can’t go wrong at Max’s.
I order a Carton Double IPA before placing my order, sipping the fresh beer and taking in the new environment. I keep trying to remember where everything was in the old layout, but the place is unrecognizable.
Opening with the sausage bread starter feels right. It is kind of my thing. When the platter arrives, the portion looks as though it could feed a small family. It’s filled with Italian sausage, but uniquely rolled inside a flaky toasted dough that feels more Eastern European than Mediterranean. Jake’s Homemade Sausage Bread is derived from a traditional family recipe usually served at the holidays, scaled down to appetizer size. Absolutely delicious. Order it to split, or box some of it up to go, like I did.
Next, I order a bowl of chili with the intention of putting some on the hot dog if the mood strikes me. It’s saucy and spicy, made with ground beef and fresh jalapeños, topped with melted cheese and diced white onion. The serving is generous, but there isn’t enough to put on the hot dog once I’m through with it. I finish the bowl. In my opinion, this chili is probably better on the side than as a topping for a hot dog, anyway.
The meal crescendos with the classic.
When the hot dog arrives, it’s piping, charred, hanging off its short bun with the casing split open from being perfectly cooked. I know that it was slowly moved from left to right, from warm to hot along the ancient griddle until it was exactly ready to be served. I take it easy with the toppings, because I don’t like to overwhelm my hot dogs. A dab of mustard, a little red pepper relish, and I finally sink my teeth into the first bite with a satisfying snap.
It tastes just like it always has, and just like you’ll remember. Max’s is back, open for business. Make your way there this summer.
I Never Sausage a Hot Dog!
New Jersey just so happens to be the hot dog capital of the world. Some of our roadside joints go back almost 100 years! Strange regional serving styles lurk in different pockets of the state. In fact, there are so many stops around here that it might take a series of blog posts just to give each one its due… Tag along with me as I eat too many hot dogs and write about them for Jersey Bites–Jersey style!