If you are taking a cruise from England it is almost certain you will be leaving from Southampton. Since the 1840s it has been a major port for luxury cruising for many of the world’s sublimest cruise ships. Princess Cruises, P&O Cruises and Cunard are regularly in Southampton’s waters, usually on their way to somewhere, frankly, nicer. Or at least warmer. At certain times of the year there is an event commonly called “Arrival of the Three Queens”, which is when The Queen Mary 2, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria all arrive at the same time.
If you are on any one of these cruises and alight at Southampton, or are arriving a day early to stay overnight to board the next morning, there is a gem of a restaurant you should visit. Max’s Bar and Brasserie, located at 40 Oxford Street, is a 10-minute walk from where the ships dock, or one minute from my parents’ front door, should you happen to know my parents. In which case they say hello.
To quote from their website (Max’s, not my parents): “There are many Italian or Italian style restaurants in the UK. In our mind there are two types. There’s the national chain where everything is decided at head office and made to a particular price point. Then there’s the authentic Italian run and owned family restaurants where food is passion and a way of life. We have nothing against the chains but we do things differently at Max’s.”
When you walk in, you are welcomed like family, often by Max himself. Max, quixotically a Sicilian redhead, has been in the restaurant industry all his life, first in Milan and then pretty much all over the UK, either managing or bartending or sometimes both. The atmosphere is truly Italian alright. Parties at adjacent tables start talking to each other, in no small part due to being a wonderful and diverse mixture of passengers from the cruise ships, as well as locals and one or two Southampton FC soccer players. To name drop, the last time I was there I was chatting with Southampton FC’s then latest signing (from Italy) and star striker Manolo Gabbiadini. Or you’ll meet professors from Southampton University; one such patron is Professor Alexey Kavokin, a Chair of Nanophysics and Photonics at Southampton University and a co-founder of the Mediterranean Institute of Fundamental Physics (MIFP) with Dr. Giuseppe Eramo, who is based in Marino, Rome, where they also have good Italian restaurants, by the way.
In 2012 Professor Kavokin invited proprietario Max to join him at the MIFP international conferences, in China, to mix cocktails for the delegates, including Nobel laureates. As a tribute to the MIFP, Max created a special cocktail with ingredients taken from the group’s acronym: Martini Rosso, Ice, Fresh oranges and Pepper from Szechuan. The cocktail was named Make It For Pleasure — it’s pretty good, as it would have to be after all that effort.
Il genio has created a couple of other cocktails available for consumption at Max’s (go on, have a few, you’re not driving the boat! Are you…?): Max’s Balsamic Gin and Tonic (this is really good), a Honey Old Fashioned (not bad really, as a fan of Jack Daniels Honey) and an alcohol-free Pimms (didn’t try this. God no!).
The menu is a delicious variety of recipes from Southern Italy. All of the ingredients are local, where possible, and what they cannot find locally they import from Italy. It is all cooked by two chefs Max recruited from Campania and Sicily, and brought to you with passion by Max or his wife Bojana, who goes by Jana. All of the wine with the exception of one Champagne, one Rosato and two Ports, are from Italy.
Just don’t forget to get back on the boat! Or, you know, do forget.
Max’s Bar and Brassiere
40 Oxford Street, Southampton SO14 3DP, UK
Tel: +44 02380 225 227