Why wasn’t being a teenager anything like it was on TV? My generation’s expectations of high school were set by shows like Saved by the Bell, which suggested that each of us could be the perfectly hair-gelled stars of our own epic neon adventures. I went into high school expecting an environment where my core group of friends could form an instantly popular band and have an important role in every school play, club, and committee. High school was supposed to be a place where I was friends with everyone (including the principal) and every bit of drama resolved itself within a 30-minute span, just in time for my pals and I to relax in our special reserved spot in the coolest local diner.
This, of course, was never a possibility… until now. Those in the Chicago area, or willing to make the trip, can bask in a slice of nostalgic TV heaven thanks to a pop-up diner concept called Saved by the Max.
Saved by the Max is an incredibly accurate recreation of the iconic diner The Max from Saved by the Bell; the theme restaurant opened earlier this year in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. The owners of Saved by the Max were nice enough to allow me to check it out on behalf of Nerdist and I am happy to report, as a die-hard fan of anything ’90s, being there finally made me feel the way TV had promised I could so long ago.
Although the diner falls under the nebulous category of “pop-up restaurant”, after seeing it first hand, it is so much more than what I had expected. Normally, when things like this come about, they can come across as broad-stroke attempts to tug on the heartstrings of fandom. I was expecting something along the lines of a comic con installation designed to exist for only a few days and run as many people through it as possible. This is not the case with Saved By The Max.
The instant you walk in, you’re greeted by the bright red lockers of Bayside students, and that’s just the start of the subtle nods to the show. An enormous Bayside emblem watches over you just begging for selfies. A wall separates the view of the main space from passersby, which only helps to build the anticipation of what you’re about to experience. In only a few short steps, you’re somehow transported into a tangible version your memories of the show. For any Saved by the Bell fan, it’s sensory overload of neon and nostalgia. It’s clear that an incredible amount of work went into getting even the smallest detail as accurate as possible.
In a conversation with owner Derek Berry, he told me that the idea of Saved by the Max came from a love of the 90s and quite a few years of curating nostalgia based events with the other owners. “The project was thought of in early February  and we opened up June 1st,” Berry said. “We decided to really take every step to duplicate this and really pay attention to every detail no matter how small it was along the way.”
In addition to bringing in countless fans of the show, some of the original cast has been in attendance as well. “We’ve been lucky enough, thus far, to have a Slater, Mr Dewey, Ox, Mr. Belding, and Max himself! All of which have been truly outstanding and totally elevated the experience for the patrons,” Berry said. And while given the chance, I’d surely prefer an event in which hot sundaes are served on a Sunday while Hot Sundae performs, Berry told me that they’d “love to see Tiffani-Amber Thiessen come in and curate a menu, or see Zack Attack reunite.” Come to think of it, I don’t know if there’s a limit to the money I’d be willing to spend spend to see “Friends Forever” performed by the cast.
Whether or not that Zack Attack reunion will come to fruition is yet to be seen, but the response from visiting cast members seems to be very positive. Recently, Mario Lopez (you know damn well who he played if you’re this far into a SBTB article) dropped in and chronicled his visit on Instagram.
What you may have noticed, other than the fact Mario Lopez is incapable of aging, is the reference to his character on the drink menu. Saved by the Max stands apart from other pop-ups by having an extensive menu, full of items from local Chicago sources, that doesn’t disappoint when it comes to references to the show. Both the food and drink menus feature items named after the actors, characters and popular plot points from the show. Patrons can enjoy some “A.C. Sliders” or some “Mac & Screech” and wash them down with a “Stacey Carosi’s Sofie Mimosie” that uses Goose Island’s Sofie or the Jessie Spano-inspired “I’m So Excited.” I suppose I can understand why that one isn’t rimmed with crushed caffeine pills, but it does incorporate Red Bull.
Originally only slated to be open for June, they’ve extended through the year and are planning to have New Years Eve be their last night open. Should you find yourself in Chicago, Saved by the Max is open Monday through Sunday for dinner and serves brunch on weekends. It’d be in your best interest to book a reservation online through their site however they are able to accommodate a few walk-ins from time to time.
As both a child of the ’90s and an internet writer, it’s sometimes easy for me to be more than a little skeptical about the many throwbacks that exist today that seem to specifically prey on nostalgia. However, every ounce of cynicism I may have carried (intentional or not) through the doors of Saved by the Max was instantly washed away by how perfectly executed the place is. And although I’ll never know what it’s like to walk the halls of Bayside, or where chunks of time went when Zach called “Time Out,” for the briefest of moments inside Saved by the Max, I finally got to experience a little bit of what TV had promised me long ago. And though it took longer than I expected, in the end I’m elated that I finally get to say (despite how corny it is) that it’s alright, because I’m saved by the bell.
Take a look at the gallery for more pictures of Saved by the Max, and let’s discuss our favorite Saved by the Bell moments in the comments below!
Images: Saved By The Max/David Miller