When Eric Bushard, a 34-year-old senior manager of strategic partnerships at Yahoo, heard that a pop-up restaurant inspired by the TV series “Saved by the Bell” was opening here on Santa Monica Boulevard, he texted a friend he has known since the fourth grade, “Hey Screech, it looks like the Max is open again!”
To his fiancé, who is 17 years his senior and has never watched the show, which aired Saturday mornings on NBC from 1989-1992, these words meant nothing. But to Bushard and his buddy, both of whom grew up in San Diego, they were an invitation to wallow in Day-Glo nostalgia for a series that is their cohort’s beloved counterpart to the Gen X favorite “The Brady Bunch.”
Called Saved by the Max and located in the same shopping center as a Target and a Best Buy, the diner is one of the latest venues designed to let fans have an “immersive experience” of their favorite TV shows and movies. Others have included the popular “Downton Abbey” exhibit, open on 57th Street in New York City through September and expected to travel after that, and the short-lived Rue La Rue Café, a “Golden Girls"-themed destination that opened and closed in Washington Heights last year.
The brainchild of three Chicago entrepreneurs — Derek Berry, Zack Eastman and Steve Harris, who all have experience as club promoters — Saved by the Max meticulously re-creates the neon-lit cafe where the kids from Bayside High School in the fictional Los Angeles suburb of Palisades liked to hang after class.
Keen-eyed visitors to the restaurant will notice, in an array of school lockers, replicas of such props as the brick-sized cellphone favored by the preppy bad boy Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and bottles of caffeine pills like those abused in the series’ most infamous episode by the leggy egghead Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley, years before she abused herself in “Showgirls”).There is even a re-creation of Principal Richard “the Big Bopper” Belding's office: paneling, pennants and all.
“When I walked into that place, my knees buckled because it was just perfect,” said Dennis Haskins, the actor who played Mr. Belding on both “Saved by the Bell” and “Good Morning, Miss Bliss,” the 1988 show that spawned it. “I was looking around for the crew. It was that good.”
Haskins had this reaction when he visited a Chicago incarnation of Saved by the Max in 2016 when it opened in the city’s Wicker Park neighborhood. That restaurant, which at 2,500 square feet was less than half the size of the California version, was supposed to be open only for a month but proved to be “crazily popular,” as one local Zagat reviewer put it. “When we put tickets on sale, they sold out in a matter of minutes,” Berry said. “We found ourselves going a full year, until we decided to put Saved by the Max on tour.”
The West Hollywood edition is taking reservations through September 2019. Tickets, which include an appetizer and entree, cost $40. Some nights, visitors might get a cast member as a chaser.
“I’m going to be popping in sporadically and showing up in full costume and character,” said Ed Alonzo, the magician and actor who played Max, the cafe owner on “Saved by the Bell.” “Seeing me in the actual diner, dressed as Max, is very surreal for people,” he said.
But how is the food?
The upscale diner menu was created by Brian Fisher, a usually much more serious chef known for his cooking at the Michelin-starred Chicago restaurants Schwa and Entente. Dishes include Mac & Screech, a cheesy appetizer named for the nerdy goofball played by Dustin Diamond; A.C. Sliders, made with ginger-and-beer-braised pulled pork and saluting Bayside’s star athlete A.C. Slater (Mario Lopez); Tori’s Fried Chicken, which is Korean-spiced, served with a coconut milk waffle and named for Leanna Creel’s character; and the Kelly Kapowski, a Monte Cristo sandwich honoring Tiffani Thiessen’s breakout role as the prettiest girl in high school.
Fisher was a fan of the show, he said. “Oh yeah, big time. I was the perfect age.” (35.) One of the reasons the show resonated with him and others who watched, suggested an executive producer, Bennett Tramer, is because the show’s actors were the same age as their characters, then a rarity in television. “On ‘Head of the Class,'” said Tramer, referring to the 1986-1991 ABC sitcom about gifted high school students, “They had to take their midterms and then apply for Social Security.”
Among the show’s most ardent fans are the composer and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda — he even quoted a line from the caffeine-pill episode in his Hunter College High School yearbook — Lena Dunham, Questlove and Amy Schumer. Actress Saoirse Ronan has said in interviews that watching “Saved by the Bell,” which can be streamed on Hulu and Amazon Prime, helped her prepare for her Oscar-nominated performance as an awkward high school student in “Lady Bird.”
And a 2015 “Saved by the Bell” reunion skit on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” featuring members of the original cast, was called “the greatest ‘90s moment ever” by HuffPost and since has racked up more than 39 million views on YouTube.
“It’s extremely flattering that so many people are fans of the show,” said Lopez. “There was a fun cheesiness that I think everyone enjoys. Plus, there was a certain innocence and charm to it.”
Universal, which owns “Saved by the Bell,” did not commission the pop-up restaurant, but has enthusiastically sanctioned it and become a partner. Reviving classic entertainment properties, said Carol Nygren, senior vice president of Worldwide Live Entertainment, Universal Brand Development, “is always a popular trend, and being able to re-create scenes that play into fans’ memories of popular shows is so much fun.”
In recent years, Hulu and Netflix sponsored re-creations of Luke’s Diner from “Gilmore Girls” and Jerry’s apartment on “Seinfeld” to herald those shows’ arrivals on streaming services. In 2014, Warner Brothers partnered with Eight O’Clock Coffee to do a pop-up version of Central Perk, the coffeehouse on “Friends,” and secured a copyright on the name for use in “coffee shop and cafe services” last January. And who can forget the giddy days of 1997 when Fox built a life-size replica of the “Simpsons” house in a suburban Las Vegas subdivision?
Enthusiasm for “Saved by the Bell"-related experiences, however, may outplay all of those properties. “It’s the right time for “Saved by the Bell,” Eastman said. “People’s interest in the show hasn’t died. Folks who are 32 to 38 years old, we’re all looking for something that’s different to do, something that’s not a nightclub that you have to be somebody to get into.” His business partner, Harris, who is in his early fifties, said the men chose the show in part because that age group is “out and spending and being more active than people who grew up on ‘Cheers’ and ‘Happy Days.'” (Ouch!)
In fact, Peter Engel, an executive producer on the series and author of the 2016 memoir “I Was Saved by the Bell” has dubbed that group of early millennials the “Bell Generation.” “They’re still connected with the show,” he said. “What show, after 26 years, has had a restaurant in Chicago and now in L.A.?”
He noted that a documentary is being made about the creation of the show and said he has written a musical based on the series that he described as a “celebration of the ‘90s.” He’d like the play to go to Broadway,” but he’ll settle for Las Vegas, as long as there is a Saved by the Max restaurant attached.
Haskins, the once and eternal Mr. Belding, would cheer this development: “With all that’s going on in the world, we need some place that brings back a lot of good memories.”
“This show really made a difference,” Engel said. “'Saved by the Bell’ reflected a kinder, gentler time.”