PALM HARBOR — For a dozen years in the 1960s and 1970s, the Round Table Restaurant in Buffalo was the place to be. Athletes, politicians and onlookers crowded the bar and filled every darkened booth.
Max Margulis, who opened the steak house with George Steinbrenner, called the place his "saloon." He ended up working for Steinbrenner at Yankee Stadium, Tampa Bay Downs and George M. Steinbrenner Field — where the media room, Max's Cafe, is named for him.
Mr. Margulis died Tuesday night after being hospitalized for a week. He was 83.
"If he wasn't working the crowd out front, he was at the bar with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other," said Ross Reback, 50, Mr. Margulis' nephew.
The son of a Romanian furrier, Mr. Margulis fought in World War II with the Army, then studied at the Sorbonne. His subject: dress making.
"He wanted to hang out with the pretty students and models all day," Reback said. "And he actually learned about dress making while he was there."
Back in the U.S., Mr. Margulis opened the Royal Arms in Buffalo, a successful jazz club that featured performers like Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin and Mel Torme. But the real turning point came on a rainy afternoon, when an ambitious businessman named George Steinbrenner ducked into the place.
The men struck up a friendship, then opened a restaurant together in 1965. The Round Table Restaurant quickly attracted athletes with money to spend: Joe Namath, O.J. Simpson and Jack Kemp all ate there many times, Reback said. Pretty soon, everybody who was anybody had go there.
"It was like Toots Shor's," said Jimmy Naples, 50, son of a third partner in the restaurant. "All of the politicians, sports figures and downtown people were in there."
Mr. Margulis and Naples' father bought out Steinbrenner within a year or two. "Max was as opinionated as George was," Naples said, "so they realized that if they were going to remain friends they could not be business partners."
Everybody knew Max.
Once, Naples said, Mr. Margulis was driving drunk through a snowstorm when he rear-ended another car. The other driver turned out to be the president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
"She gets out screaming," Naples said. "He says, 'Come on, I'll buy you a drink.' She decides she'll have him arrested.
"The cops get there. They say, 'Hey, Max.' "
The judge, who also knew Max, threw out the case, Naples said.
The Round Table closed in 1978, one of many downtown businesses to stumble in Buffalo. Steinbrenner put Mr. Margulis in charge of all food and beverages at Yankee Stadium. The bond lasted 30 more years, as Mr. Margulis also directed concessions at Tampa Bay Downs, then Legends Field after Steinbrenner moved the Yankees' spring training to Tampa in 1996.
Meeting Steinbrenner wasn't the only turning point in his life. In 1978, the lifelong bachelor married the former Dottie Stearns, who had first met him at the Round Table.
"I chased him for 12 years," said Dottie Margulis, 72. They had a Jewish wedding, after his heritage. From then on, she called him "lover boy." He called her his "bride."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.