Anyone who frequented downtown Manhattan between ’89 and 2013 had to have at least one memorable night at Max Fish, the oddly named bar whose mention instantly evokes blurred memories of Ludlow Street, pinball machines, skaters, and all sorts of local legends just looking for a place to chill unwind.
Now moved from it’s original address to 120 Orchard Street just a few blocks away, and still sporting it’s telltale red and blue polka dot motif, it’s thanks to longtime owner Ulli Rimkus that they’re able to keep the spirit of “The Fish” alive. Amid construction chaos and finishing touches on the new space, we were graciously ushered by Ulli to a spot downstairs quiet enough for our interview. Housed in what used to be Gallery Bar, a duplex with at least four restrooms, it’s certainly a welcomed change from the narrow bones and infamously long bathrooms lines of the Ludlow location.
Smiling radiantly and sporting a Yankees-inspired Max Fish fitted atop her straight blonde bangs, the German-born, now LES local went on to tell us about the history of the bar, the energy that made it famous, and how the changing neighborhood caused so much transition.
When did you open the original Max Fish and why?
1989. I wanted to have a bar, a fun place for everybody to hang out, communicate, have fun…
Is there a particular reason why you chose the Lower East Side?
I felt it was a great opportunity for me, and I really liked the space when I saw it.
Were you living in the LES at the time?
Mhm, I still do.
Why the name Max Fish?
When I took the store on 178 Ludlow it had ‘Max Fish’ on the transom, and I just felt Max Fish was the right name, so I kept it. And then we were open and we didn’t list the name of the bar, we just had the phone number unlisted, and the phone company called me and said “You have to put the name with your phone number because people have been calling this poor family, Max Fish, at all hours of the night.” [Laughs] So we listed it.
When did you start bringing artwork and exhibitions into the space?
The place always had art, from day one. Actually before it was even a bar we used it as a gallery.
Out of everything you’ve shown there over the year, did you have a particular favorite?
No—I have some pieces, but we’ve had over 230 art shows in there.
What do you think it is about that original location that turned it into such a cult NYC hangout?
The main focus wasn’t drinking, the main focus was you could meet people there, you could conduct your business, look at art with all the different shows—and we hung it very professionally so it didn’t look like it was an afterthought or anything. It was done to please the art and to really show the art and represent the artist, and I think that was a big part of it. And very community oriented.
When I started hanging out there after high school, one of the main appeals was a lot of skateboarders. Have you always had a close connection to skaters?
For some reason it was always like indie rock, indie rockers for a while…always a group that would hang out there. I think all these different groups would mix really well there and really took from each other. That’s what I mean, you went in there and got inspired or you met somebody you got a job from or you collaborated with someone you’d never think of. A lot of connections were made that way at that time.
When did the drama with the rent at the old space start?
I think it started like three years before we left. Looking back in hindsight, I should have closed. But it was hard to give up when everybody was saying, “No don’t go!” I fought and fought and then I was like “Am I crazy?” I just let it go because it was too much. At that point they wanted me to pay $20,000 for next door to use it as a fire exit and I’m like…“I’m outta here.”
Throughout all of that change leading up to the rent increase, how did you notice the energy of the bar changing along with the gentrification of the city?
In the bar business you don’t have the same customers, it’s always fluctuating, which is good, you know? You don’t go to the same bar all the time, you go to other places, you go around—there’s always a fluctuation. And yeah, our clientele of course has changed with time, there’s no doubt. You have to have a constant change.
When you closed the space on Ludlow, did you immediately know that you’d reopen?
Yes, we were gonna relocate right away but it was difficult to find a location. This is sort of a little bit of the old Lower East Side like it used to be, with the stores—
Between the fedora stores and the leather shops.
I know! I love it. So I’m really happy about that.
How do you plan on transferring that energy from the old space into here?
This is a whole new location—I mean, it’s us. We did a few pop-ups; two in Miami, one here, and a bar in Asbury Park one summer, and I think it works. I’m really not worried. I think for the customers who’ve been to every Max Fish, it’s kind of interesting because it’s something new…it doesn’t get boring.