Max Fish, trendsetting LES bar, celebrates 30th anniversary

Max Fish bar owner Ulli Rimkus with Joshua Zickert of Adidas Skateboarding.
Max Fish bar owner Ulli Rimkus with Joshua Zickert of Adidas Skateboarding. Photo Credit: Li Yakira Cohen

Legendary Lower East Side watering hole Max Fish, which nearly a decade ago faced down an almost-certain closure, celebrated its extended life span on Sunday with a 30th anniversary party.

Longtime patrons and fans of the bar packed into the Orchard Street venue for a bash co-sponsored by Adidas, which put out a special edition — and already sold-out — sneaker for the occasion, to  mark their love of the place that had long personified Lower East Side cool.

The bar’s original Ludlow Street location did close in 2013, but it was reborn a year later on Orchard Street, where the freewheeling spirit of the place that became a downtown icon — and the familial vibe that made the place so remarkable since it first opened its doors in the late 80s — lives on.

“It was like my home right when I moved to New York,” said Ryan Sawyer, 42, who first started going to the bar in 1998. “It was like, ‘I’ve got people.’”

Sawyer was an occasional DJ and bartender at Max Fish, and his band Gang Gang Dance has played the venue — but above all else, he said, it was a home away from home, and it has stayed that way even as it moves locations and the neighborhood shifts around it.

“There’s always stuff that changes and Max Fish is a barometer of that for sure, but it’s just a positive place to feel at home, and a touchstone and a safe sanctuary,” he said.

Artist Ulli Rimkus first opened the bar in 1989, when the neighborhood was still overrun by the drug trade and the cost of living was cheap. Max Fish was a creative hub, operating as a gallery as well as a bar and a music venue. It quickly became a hangout for local artists, skaters and misfits of all stripes, and it stayed that way even when the likes of Johnny Depp and James Gandolfini started to stop by for a drink.

“We really don’t pay that much attention to famous people because the customers, we love them all,” said Rimkus. “If they respect us we give it back to them.”

And maybe that’s her secret to success. A former skater kid who still calls the bar home said that welcoming, come-as-you-are attitude is what has made the bar stand out.

“She accepted us,” said Alex Corporan, 46, of Rimkus. Corporan has been a Max Fish regular since it first opened, when he was just a teen.

“New York was special back then,” he said. “New York was a very different place — a place where we made magic happen, from hip-hop to skateboarding to punk rock. 1989 was a giant, giant time.”

The neighborhood has undeniably changed — a high-rise is now shooting up next to the new Max Fish location. Rimkus noted there’s a lot more money than there once was. But the bar’s loyalty to its true customer base is probably what has allowed it to persist, noted Corporan, who said he wasn’t surprised by the bar’s longevity.

“I’m not surprised, in a weird way, because we kept it all in the family,” he said, adding Rimkus kept up with the neighborhood’s transformation. “She rolled with the punches. You’re mad and you disappear, or you’re here.”

Max Fish is still here, and a big enough presence to draw corporate sponsorships along with crowds of loyal patrons. Giveaway bags with blue suede Adidas sneakers sat by the door, while outside longtime locals beamed and greeted each other warmly — everyone seemed to know each other. And that feeling is all thanks to Rimkus, said Corporan.

“She is hands down the goddess of LES,” he said.

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