Maxwell Borkenhagen

As the guitarist for Ugly Winner by night and General Manager for Cafe Stritch by day, Maxwell Borkenhagen seems like he’d probably be a pretty busy guy. When I met with him on a Thursday evening last week to talk a little bit about Café Stritch and its already-impressive trajectory, I’m reminded of that. When I find him, he’s just getting started on a cigarette on the street outside the café – just barely in compliance with San Jose’s outdoor smoking ordinance. I apologize for being late. “It’s a good thing you were,” he says. “We just had a huge rush.” We idle on the sidewalk and make some smalltalk, the din of traffic and the diners on the patio ebbing and flowing around us.

When he’s done, we push our way through the cafe — just about a month old and already doing brisk dinnertime business — and scramble up a skinny staircase into an office. It’s a chaotic scene: teetering piles of papers all around; a coffeemaker that takes up a good quarter of the desk across from me. My lopsided chair keeps threatening to pitch me off every time I lean too far to one side. Still, the controlled mayhem is a promising sight for a venue so new.

Cafe Stritch is downtown San Jose’s newest home for live music (and, according to several sources, really delicious mac and cheese). Though it’s ostensibly a restaurant for the time being, Borkenhagen has big plans for his family’s latest endeavor, plans that reach far beyond San Jose.

TBB: Let’s start with a little bit about how this place came to be.

MB: My parents opened Eulipia Restaurant in 1977. In the late ’70s and ’80s it was a place where there was a lot of live jazz and art, and it became a great café in a time when there was, you know, no South First arts scene. (At the time), this was kind of a shithole area of town.

Over the years it formed into this white-tablecloth, fine-dining place . . . there was still live music occasionally, and it was still associated with the arts community, but it definitely got more of an older crowd, to the point that by the mid-’90s it was pretty much just a fancy restaurant . . .

And when I was growing up, I just hated, hated San Jose. It seemed like there was nothing for me. I was getting into indie rock and post-punk stuff, and there were really no all-ages outlets (for that) — if there were I didn’t know how to find them. So, when I graduated high school I moved to Portland and went to school there, and I immediately fell in love. It was just the greatest place to me ’cause there was cool stuff everywhere. I was there for about four years, but by the end of it I started getting tired of the level of complacency there. There’s a cool coffee shop on every corner and music venues everywhere, and everyone’s in a band. It got the point where it seemed like there was no potential; just all these people living this Portland lifestyle that wasn’t really going anywhere.

That was when I started talking to my dad about moving back here, and we started talking about rebuilding Eulipia into what it once was. When I moved back Eulipia was still open, and then it closed about a year and a half ago.

In the meantime I was operating sort of an underground venue in San Jose that became sort of a clubhouse for my extended group of friends. It was really a breath of fresh air for all of us because (this venue made it feel like) San Jose was cool. It was a place where we could have cool shows and great parties but . . . because it was an underground venue, we couldn’t really publicize it, and we couldn’t really use it to the benefit of the greater community.

So, towards the end we got more and more organized with the underground shows and we started charging cover, and we started having some really great bands almost every weekend for a while but unfortunately that place ceased to be viable, so we stopped having shows there. Right around when I started working to rebuild this place.

The goal was always to create a place that was suited to the artists and musicians that are all over this area. There aren’t many places in San Jose where they can feel at home and get the things that they want. Good Karma down the street has always been that for me, but it’s small. We need bigger places. San Jose has so much potential artistically and musically; from the get-go the concept was to have good-quality, affordable food, craft beer – there’s a big growing craft beer scene in San Jose —

TBB: Yeah, you know I’ve kind of noticed that. I’ve kind of been feeling like (there was a burgeoning brew scene) here in San Jose but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It’s nice to hear you confirm that.

MB: Yeah, that’s definitely getting bigger. Also, specialty coffee is something I care a lot about, and something that I got into in Portland more or less. I’m really thankful to be so close with Chromatic Coffee, which is a new, very San Jose-grounded business.

TBB: What kind of music are you hoping for?

I really don’t want to make this place known as a restaurant that has music as a secondary thing, which is how a lot of similar places are around here. I want to be known just as much as a concert venue as a café, as a bar, as a place where you can come and get all of these things.

In terms of the music, I’d like to become a central hub for San Jose bands and musicians, as well as, over time, become a place where touring musicians can go and know that there are good places in San Jose; not just the Blank Club. You don’t have to pass by San Jose because it’s “off the map.” We have great audiences ready to watch great music.

In terms of types of music, we’re definitely going to have a lot of jazz.

TBB: Well, that’s part of your legacy.

MB: Yeah. Jazz is probably going to be almost half of our performances. And that’s partially because of our history — I love jazz, my father loved jazz, it sort of runs in my family and that’s definitely going to be a cornerstone of what we’re doing here.

In addition to the jazz, I’m definitely going to be having a lot of indie rock showcases — various underground, alternative styles of music. I really wanna develop our reputation as a place where you can come in one night and there can be a crazy rock show going on, the next night a mellow jazz show, the next day there could be classical musicians performing, but always very good quality music. We’re never going to have an open-mic here. I think it’s detrimental to develop a really awesome music scene to just let anyone who comes in the door jump on stage. I really want to, by vetting every band that wants to play and being honest about how suitable I think they are for our stage, make sure that people get the sense that all sorts of music happens here, but it’s always solid.

TBB: Setting the bar for San Jose.

MB: Yeah. Diversity and consistent quality are definitely key.

TBB: What kind of shows have you had so far?

MB: Our first show was the Hive Dwellers and Calvin Johnson on March 27th. We’ve already had a few jazz shows. I’m sort of cultivating this collective of young jazz musicians. There are a lot of young jazz musicians around here that are great players. That’s something that I wanna do too -– create more jazz fans.

TBB: Yeah, there are a lot (of young jazz musicians) around here. But it’s hard for them cause . . . they just, like . . . they need a cool place to go.

MB: Yeah, and that’s also a good point — you know, we want to be a place that’s accessible to all different types of people. Our core demo is definitely artists and musicians, but we really wanna be a place where the average guy can come in here and feel welcome and feel encouraged to try something that’s better than what they’re used to. And with music it’s the same way. (Hopefully), because they know the place and have faith in us, they’ll be open to something that they’re not used to.

TBB: Speaking of which, anything coming up you wanna plug?

MB: Actually, my band Ugly Winner is playing with our good buddies Dinners, which is half of Worker Bee and half of Doctor Nurse; some of my very favorite bands in San Jose. And again, (with the venue) I wanna take these great San Jose bands that I have complete faith in and give them a way to show themselves. We’ve got so much great music but it gets either exported to some other city, or the bands just stay here and never really get enough people appreciating (them). I aspire to create a place where San Jose bands can succeed but have it be in San Jose, not force them to go to other places to prove themselves.

TBB: I know you kinda just finished talking about this, but what are you hoping to achieve with this as a venue?

My goal has always been to show not only San Jose, but the Bay Area and even farther than that that San Jose is a great place and it’s a place with culture. You know, we’re a huge city but somehow no one knows about us.

On the in-house side, I want to cultivate a place where San Jose musicians can come for all the different things. They can come here to work, come here to get drunk, come to see a great show . . . a place where they can feel together with their community and feel like San Jose culture is on the rise. On the other side of things, I really want to show the greater community that a place like this can succeed in San Jose. We have so many creative people – you know, with Google, Apple… but they don’t perceive there to be any cool places (in San Jose) that offer them the things they want and…they go to the city. But I want to prove that San Jose is a great place for arts and music. All we need is for the people to actually come downtown and show themselves. Because once one place like us can succeed, people are gonna be like, ‘I can do this. I can open up a record store or a coffee shop’ or something. And that’s — you know – we need more trendsetting places like that. Places that show that we can…you know…

That we can kick ass in San Jose.

Cafe Stritch is open for business at 374 South First Street, right next to AD Gallery. They’ve already got a formidable lineup scheduled for the immediate future: Slam Dunk, The Blank Tapes, and more. Come for the music, stay for the mac and cheese.