Make every effort to dine soon at T.L. Maxwell’s Restaurant & Bar because, simply put, it’s a splendid dining experience. We are blessed in Bakersfield to have a classic restaurant such as T.L. Maxwell’s, and caring owners Terry and Paula Maxwell.
The problem is it’s easy to overlook. Its address is 1421 17th Place, but it’s essentially in a downtown alley between 17th and 18th streets immediately east of Chester Avenue. Several out-of-town Yelp reviewers say they found Maxwell’s by reading other reviews; otherwise, they wouldn’t have had any idea Maxwell’s existed. Out of sight, out of mind.
That’s also part of its charm. The restaurant is in the oldest building in downtown Bakersfield, according to Terry, built between 1895 and 1905. It’s adjacent to the better-known Haberfelde Building, which was built in 1925.
Old time Bakersfieldians will tell you of the restaurant’s heyday as “The Office,” first opened in 1946 by Clyde Barbeau, Terry said. It was reputedly a watering hole that earned its name from patrons who would call home to let their wives know the reason they were late was they were still at “the office.”
Sometime in the ensuing quarter century The Office closed and the restaurant became known as simply 17th Place, but when I moved to town in 1983, the place—no pun intended—was closed. It remained locked up for many years before a succession of short-lived ventures tried to make a go of it, first The Basque Tradition, followed by Dave’s Deli, and a few others.
Enter Terry Maxwell. He opened the original Maxwell’s, at 5600 Auburn St., in northeast Bakersfield, before moving into the vacant space on 17th Place in 1999. He’s been downtown ever since.
T.L. Maxwell’s is spacious and inviting in a historic locale. You enter into the bar with its classic 1930s art deco feel. The semicircular mahogany bar says tradition. You half expect tuxedoed gentlemen and comparably attired ladies to grace the room. It reminds me of a time when a cocktail before dinner was de rigueur. Of course we couldn’t resist the suggestion.
The dining room is spacious by design. It features comfortable booths on the north, west, and south sides of the room, and tables in the middle. Maxwell said he doesn’t want to pack a bunch of tables in, squeezing every square foot he can out of the property. He wants to provide ample room for diners and a more pleasant dining experience.
One of the joys of dining at T.L. Maxwell’s was Maxwell himself. I say was, because Terry used to be there regularly, greeting diners and engaging them. Lately, however, he’s accepted the general manager’s job at The Mark, at 19th and H streets, a few blocks away, so he splits his time. No matter. The staff at T.L. Maxwell’s has been there so long that they are well-versed about the menu and history of the place.
The soft lighting and background music herald your pending dining experience. The white tablecloths and Riedel stemware add elegance and raise your expectations. And then you look on the menu and find a classic appetizer, escargot ($10.95). I couldn’t resist, because yes, I love escargot, and also because you so rarely see it on menus these days.
Maxwell’s escargot was divine, six delectable morsels served in a white ramekin drenched in garlic butter and cognac topped with melted Parmesan cheese. The escargot were served sans shells so no worries about a Pretty Woman redux. The delicious sliced baguette helped absorb the wonderful garlic-cognac-butter. Heavenly!
A friend who joined us for dinner had never had escargot, but was game to try it. Hesitant at first, his eyes widened as the rich flavors permeated his palate. “I’d order that again,” he said enthusiastically.
My companion chose the Cajun Crab Cakes ($10.95) with roulade sauce, and loved it. The lightly breaded crab cakes and sweet crabmeat and spicy sauce had her oohing and ah-ing.
Our friend ordered the daily soup special ($5.95 per cup; choice of soup or salad included with entrée), cream of mushroom soup. Our server undersold it a bit, and I got the idea from her description that it was a broth. As it turned out she was trying to portray it as not thick. It was definitely creamy, loaded with fresh mushrooms, and ever so good!
I ordered a Caesar salad with my entrée, and our server made me aware that the dressing was classic (would you expect anything else at Maxwell’s?), made with raw egg and anchovies. No problem, I said, and was rewarded with an exceptional version of this classic salad. The romaine was crisp and cold, the dressing tangy and the grated Parmesan nutty and delicious.
The other three at our table chose the house salad with bleu cheese dressing and crumbles. The presentation was beautiful, almost deconstructed: two vertical Roma tomato slices, and thickly sliced fresh mushrooms nestled against a bed of leafy green- and red-leaf lettuce. All three greatly enjoyed it.
Our entrées were simply fabulous. All four of us loved not only the quality of the ingredients but also the exquisite attention to detail by our servers in presenting them to us.
One dinner companion ordered the Pork Tenderloin on a bed of linguine with Gorgonzola sauce ($23.95). His one word description? “Wow!” He offered me a taste, and I concurred.
His wife chose a pepper-crusted filet mignon in a cream sherry reduction sauce with caramelized sweet onions ($35.95). The meat was so beautifully tender, she only used her fork to cut it. Mmms and ahs were her only words.
My companion tried the Orange Roughy Caribbean with mango, cilantro, and rum sauce ($29.95). Rather than the Caribbean style listed on the menu, she asked if she could have it with the lemon-dill sauce that normally accompanies the Salmon Fallbrook ($28.95). ”Of course,” our server said. The lemon-dill sauce perfectly complemented the natural sweetness of the Roughy, to the point that not a morsel was left.
I opted for the Rib-eye Steak with a Hunter’s Sauce ($39.95). Traditionally this sauce is known as a Chasseur sauce, and has shallots, mushrooms, and thyme in a cream sherry reduction. Some years back the sauce used to be listed on Maxwell’s menu by its traditional name; just a hunch, but perhaps the staff got tired of explaining what a Chasseur sauce was, hence the change.
The side dishes were fresh broccoli and zucchini steamed a perfect al dente, and a real baked potato.
My steak was a perfect medium rare, the quality exceptional and the flavors absolutely heavenly. So good! I wound up taking half of it home and enjoying it all over again a couple nights later.
By this time we were all pretty full, so we shared one of Maxwell’s special desserts, Paula’s Turtle: toasted pecans and salty caramel on a brownie. It’s one of those times you think about ordering dessert first.
Wine is an important part of the Maxwell’s experience. The restaurant has a good wine list, periodically offers “Wine Lovers’ Dinners,” and every Wednesday evening offers a free glass of house wine with your dinner order, or waives corkage on any bottle you bring in.
I noticed that some Yelp reviewers prefer more modern surroundings, but to me the history is part of the attraction. That, coupled with the food, the wine, and the ambiance add up to one incredible dining experience; I can’t recommend it highly enough.
T.L. Maxwell’s accepts Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover cards. For reservations, please call (661) 323-6889.
Photos by Art of Eric James