To the Max
In a particularly rough year for NYC renters, love isn’t enough to save precious neighborhood spots.
By Will Lyman with additional reporting by Henry Astor
I feel my age for the first time in Max Soha, the sister restaurant to the recently shuttered Max Caffé. The restaurant has been a fixture of the neighborhood since 2001, serving Italian cuisine on the corner of W. 123rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue. When rent increases forced Max Caffè to close in August 2022, Max Soha absorbed the lunch and coffee menu from their counterpart. Sitting in the newly conglomerated restaurant, I see all the vestiges of the former café: the overbearing wooden mirror, the laminated index cards that announce the lunch specials, and the familiar taste of the lattes. If I close my eyes, I can picture getting drunk off their weekday wine special and stumbling onto Amsterdam Avenue with my ex. But when I open them, I’m reminded that I have lived in Morningside Heights long enough to see a restaurant live and die.
Owner Tony Bruno was left with little choice but to close the beloved spot after rent increased to $16,000 per month during the summer. The closure resounded throughout the Columbia Community as students, alumni, and local residents mourned the local fixture. To combat the loss, Max Soha, which operated under the same owner and was perched on the same block, absorbed café service and many long-time staff members.
“It’s relocated here for now. Lunch is café, dinner is restaurant. That’s the best option we can find so far,” explained Marie, who has worked at Max Soha since last April.
The closure of Max Caffé came at the end of a painful year for New York renters. According to a StreetEasy study, rent growth outpaced wage growth by 23% in the month of Max Caffé’s closure, representing the widest gap since the 2008 financial crisis. On top of that, the New York Rent Guidelines Board approved a 3.25% increase for one-year leases and a 5% increase on two-year leases during 2022. It is the highest bump in rent prices in nearly a decade. These surges come as the city recovers from the pandemic, which caused high vacancy rates in rental units as people fled the city. According to landlords, people flooding back to the city is what has caused prices to skyrocket. Yet, Lane Brown, a journalist at New York Magazine, questions if this supposed rebound is actually a market manipulation tactic used by landlords to recuperate lost revenue.
The change in the city is palpable. Renters are scrambling to keep up with price hikes, leading to the closure or relocation of local spots in favor of corporate chains like Blue Bottle, Starbucks, and LuluLemon. While living and working in the blocks above 120th, I have watched local businesses slowly disappear since coming to Columbia. Bar 314, which used to sit next to Max Caffé, moved to Lasalle and Broadway in October to replace Bettolona, which closed. Neighborhood favorite Lincoln Fried Chicken shut down, leaving customers to write poems in its memory on Yelp. Apprehension strikes me as I walk down Broadway: nothing is guaranteed. Love may not be enough to save your favorite local spot.
At Max Soha, I feel that I’m a patron of a world already beginning to be left behind. Whether this is true or just a symptom of melodrama, I’m certain that something must come of it. This means spending money at local favorites when you can, or supporting organizations like ROAR (Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants) that fight for incentivized lease restructures and fair hourly wage practices in New York restaurants and cafés. For now, I’ll be buying my next latte from Max Soha.