I moved to Somerville in December 2007 and right around that same time, Highland Kitchen opened its doors at 150 Highland Ave. I dined at the restaurant soon after moving in and have returned literally dozens of times since. What keeps me coming back is the reliable, yet innovative menu, the lively atmosphere and some of the best service in town.
“Running a restaurant is maintaining consistency,” said Mark Romano, Highland Kitchen owner and chef. “The main thing is providing tasty food and good service. If you can maintain that you can survive.”
And Highland Kitchen has not only survived on this once forgotten part of Highland Ave., it’s thrived. Open for dinner nightly, the place is usually packed, with many people jockeying for tables and coveted bar seats. On Sunday mornings, the line for brunch stretches way down the block in the hour or so before the restaurant opens.
As Somerville has become a popular destination for those in their 20s and 30s looking for a community to call home, once-overlooked areas of the city are coming alive. Highland Ave. has gotten several new tenants recently (M.F. Dulock Pastured-Raised Meats, e. scott originals and The Collector, to name a few), but Romano took a chance on his location long before the neighborhood was one of the places to be.
After looking at spaces from Connecticut to Newburyport, Romano and his wife Marci Joy, stumbled upon the location Highland Kitchen now occupies. No one seemed to want the space, but Romano thought it was the perfect size and it already had a full liquor license, important because at the time inheriting one was pretty much the only way to serve alcohol at your establishment.
“I thought the neighborhood needed something,” Romano said. “I would drive around at night and there were so many people living here and I just had a feeling this neighborhood needed a restaurant and bar and it’s worked out so far.”
Romano has worked in restaurants for pretty much his whole life. His career in the industry started when he was a child when his parents owned small mom and pop type eateries in West Virginia and Florida. After high school Romano was more interested in playing drums than focusing on the corporate life, so he continued to work at restaurants after moving to Boston in 1988, eventually ending up at the Blue Room and Green Street Grill.
Restaurants have not only shaped Romano’s professional life, but they’ve shaped his personal life as well. He met Joy while she was working at East Coast Grill and they eventually married and had a son.
“I was playing music and wasn’t interested in being a chef,” Romano said of his younger years. “But I liked to cook and loved the restaurant business. As you grow up and grow older, you start to have a family and start to realize it’s time to time to take this a little more seriously. I felt I was ready to open a place and commit 100% to running a business.”
Having so much experience in the restaurant business served Romano well when he and Joy opened Highland Kitchen nearly five years ago. Though the early days were long, Romano encountered few surprises and once the place was up and running, Romano focused on tweaking the menu.
From mussels in a coconut-curried lobster broth and buffalo fried Brussels sprouts to a black bean veggie burger and grilled flat iron steak, Highland serves innovative comfort food that draws inspiration from both Southern cooking and what’s fresh in New England now.
“We want to be a neighborhood place where people could come two to three times a week to get a burger or a pulled pork sandwich and a beer, or come in and have dinner,” Romano said. “We’ll get a little more adventurous with our specials that are more market driven. We break away from stuff on the menu to showcase local food from markets. The specials are always changing. It gives it a kind of freshness.”
To wash down all of that delicious food, Highland serves a nice selection of draft and bottled beer, a well-curated wine list and fun cocktails that change frequently (often with the season). And if you want a beverage you don’t see on the menu, just ask, the bartenders are experienced and will make you anything you like.
It’s that attention to detail and high level of service that has allowed Highland Kitchen to not only survive, but truly thrive in such an unlikely location. Despite his success, Romano doesn’t plan to rest on his laurels any time soon.
“We’re coming up on our fifth year around Christmas time and we’re constantly trying to make it better, whether it’s service, drinks, food,” Romano said. “Really it’s about maintaining a certain consistency. You want to continue and keep it going and there’s something to be said for people who have restaurants who are successful for 20 years. I’m not going to sit back and coast. I plan to keep making it better as much as I can and hopefully continue getting good people in here to work and staying on top of our own game.”
As a fan of Highland Kitchen from the beginning, that’s music to my ears.
150 Highland Ave.
Dinner nightly 5 p.m.-11 a.m., bar nightly until 1 a.m., Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Images courtesy of Highland Kitchen.