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Max Downtown Unveils Its Drastic, Modern Makeover

Toward the final weeks of Max Downtown's full-scale renovation, Max Restaurant Group founder and president Richard Rosenthal decided to make a major design change.

He had been traveling with his family in Ireland during the Hartford restaurant's summer shutdown and visited a contemporary bar with what he called a "fabulous presentation" of whiskey bottles on a wall with backlit shelves. Inspired, he came home and decided to add something similar to Max Downtown's bar space, tying in with the restaurant's planned focus on whiskeys, scotches and bourbons.

The whiskey wall with walnut shelves holding more than 200 liquor bottles, built-in LED underlighting and amber glass pushed the reopening past its targeted Sept. 5 debut, but it's now one of the most noteworthy changes to Max Restaurant Group's flagship location. After nearly 10 weeks of construction, Max Downtown reopens today at 4 p.m.

The restaurant closed July 2 and began its transformation on July 5, with plans to revamp virtually every surface in the space, including walls, booths, chandeliers, furniture and artwork. In late June, Rosenthal and Max Downtown managing partner Steven Abrams called the planned redesign updated and modernized, and said the restaurant would shift slightly from its formal white-tablecloth reputation to appeal to a wider range of diners, especially a younger audience.

The drastic makeover, led by Niemitz Design Group, features wood floors in place of carpeting in the dining room, tables without cloths and booths with textured mid-century modern fabric. Walls in the dining room and bar areas are adorned with salon-style art, with groupings of framed photographs and artwork showcasing famous faces and icons of pop culture. Private rooms, which accommodate a variety of functions, have also gotten special attention, Abrams said.

Blue is a dominant color, with hues ranging from bright royal to muted navy and slate. The restaurant has even replaced its iconic maroon outdoor awnings with new blue versions, reflecting its updated logo.

"It's a reboot; it's a 2.0," said Rosenthal. "We were going to do a facelift, but this is much more than a facelift. We went down to the bones and really created a new thing."

The restaurant menu has changed slightly, adding fresh pastas like lasagnette, bucatini and cavatelli to its classic steak and seafood selections. "Chop house classics" ($35 to $49) feature prime cuts like an 18-ounce ribeye, aged NY strip and slow-roasted prime rib, and the partners want to encourage guests to order larger steaks for sharing.

"We want people to feel as comfortable as they can be to share a large steak, a couple of sides," Abrams said. "That's important to us to make it more approachable."

Abrams and Rosenthal are particularly excited about standout starters ($13 to $17) like crab cocktail with sauce Louie and celery, hamachi crudo with grapefruit and tarragon and lamb merguez sausage. Pastas, priced at $13 to $16, are portioned slightly larger than appetizer-size, Rosenthal said.

"We want the menu to be a little more interactive," he said. "I wouldn't say it's technically a sharing menu, but it has really good things to share."

New sweet endings ($8 to $12), served out of a new open pastry kitchen just off the main dining room floor, include a salted caramel baked Alaska, apple crostada with caramel sauce and chocolate molten souffle. Max Downtown will also feature a tasting menu option each evening, with five courses for $60 and a wine pairing option for an additional $30.

The bar offers a slew of new seasonal cocktails, like a sherry cobbler; mulberry basil Collins; a rum-based "apple spice" drink; and a "Kickin' Yard Goat" with tequila, grapefruit and a little burn from a splash of Tabasco. New whiskey flights, organized by style, type and region, will cater to guests looking to taste their way through Downtown's extensive whiskey collection.

Max Downtown opened in May 1996 in Hartford's CityPlace, and Rosenthal started considering a large renovation two or three years ago, realizing that at the 20-year mark, Max Downtown was looking at new generations of guests.

"When we opened 21 years ago, our goal was to get a younger audience than a typical steakhouse. We're kind of doing that again."

As a way to welcome more diners downtown after the reopening, Max Downtown will offer free valet parking each evening through the end of 2017.

Early visitors to the revamped space have been positive about the new look, Rosenthal said.

"The immediate reaction is, 'I can't believe you're changing this place, I loved it...Wow, I love it much more.' People walk around and say 'That's new, this is new'...It's so different, yet so familiar."

Max Downtown, 185 Asylum St., Hartford, reopens Sept. 19 at 4 p.m., with dinner service starting at 5 p.m. The restaurant will resume lunch service on Sept. 25. 860-522-2530, maxrestaurantgroup.com/downtown.

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