There is such a thing as a perfect neighborhood restaurant. I believe it is Highland Kitchen. That it isn’t in my neighborhood is beside the point but deeply regrettable.
The restaurant opened in Somerville’s Spring Hill in 2007, run by Marci Joy and Mark Romano, a literal mom and pop joint; the couple has two kids. It’s known for a few things: An incredibly well-curated jukebox filled with wide-ranging deep cuts, ensuring that the mood is a little bit different every night and it’s always good. (Also karaoke nights and spelling bees, and an annual spin of the entire New York Dolls’ debut album in remembrance of Anthony Bourdain.) Bartenders who know how to make a perfect cocktail, whether it’s a classic or something like the brunchy Cereal Killer (it involves milk flavored with sugar cereal), plus a strong selection of local craft beer. A menu that comprises the bar food of your dreams, plates that would be at home in an upscale bistro, Southern cooking, unexpected specials, and, always, flavor without sacrificing technique. Even the gloriously towering double cheeseburger is precise rather than sloppy, at least until you start eating. But above all, there is something ineffable, a combination of humor, genuineness, kindness, fun, humility, excellence, hard work, and great vibes that can perhaps be best summed up as heart. Or true hospitality.
Anyway, I love it here. It had been too long since I waited for a table alongside all the other people who know a table here is worth the wait. Highland Kitchen closed due to the pandemic March 15, 2020, reopening a few months later for takeout. There was a pop-up window peddling things like beignets and muffulettas. Sister restaurant Highland Fried, in Cambridge, offered takeout, too, and then outdoor dining. Specializing in fried chicken and tiki drinks, the Inman Square spot is located in the former East Coast Grill, where Joy and Romano met. Opened in 2017 and currently on hiatus, Highland Fried will close for good, says Romano. “It’s just me and Marci and we can’t do two restaurants this way,” he says. “It’s too much with everything going on, the latest mask mandate or fears of Delta. To keep our sanity, it’s best for our family to downsize to one place.”
Cambridge is really going to miss it. Customers will have to migrate, along with the staff; all of the Highland Fried employees were offered jobs at Highland Kitchen. In Somerville, the party continues. Now, more than ever, we need it. Highland Kitchen is open for dining and drinking seven days a week, although brunch remains on hiatus. If you show up on a Tuesday, Cambridge City Council candidate and longtime Highland Kitchen bartender Joe McGuirk might be on duty. I can’t think of a better way to cultivate and understand a voter base than spending years behind a local bar.
On a recent rainy night, I have a chance to revisit an old favorite. A friend and I seize the moment when the showers pause. We pass through the dining room I’ve sat in so many times, heading out the back to take over one of a dozen outdoor tables. Romano rearranges our chairs so we can sit in the driest ones. The table is a bit wobbly, and when our first round arrives — the Dazed and Infused, a potion of mezcal infused with charred pineapple and jalapeno, Montenegro, apricot brandy, lemon, and bitters — the glasses slide when we put them down, right into our waiting palms. Time for the next sip, then put the glass down to slide again. It’s perfect. Everything is a bit wobbly these days. We’re all just trying to make it work.
Faced with the menu and our hunger, ordering feels like an impossible task. Overordering is the only option. There’s a special of smoked and fried pork ribs in BBQ sauce over cornbread salad that smells too good to resist; the ribs are just right, tender meat that protests but weakly when you strip it from the bone. We have to get the Buffalo fried Brussels sprouts, hot, crisp nuggets in fiery, tangy sauce with blue cheese dressing. Highland Kitchen has mastered this kind of bar snack. It’s a formula — fried thing plus spicy thing plus creamy thing — but it’s better than anyone else’s version. And we really have to get the ricotta and mozzarella fritters, which are pillowy, nubbly, golden-crisp orbs of cheesy magic to be dipped in spicy honey. The alchemy!
We have a salad, because health, that’s a pile of shredded kale and Brussels sprouts with hazelnuts, Pecorino cheese, figs, and lemon vinaigrette. The figs are a good surprise. The hazelnuts are just right. My friend orders mussels in coconut curry-lobster broth with grilled Iggy’s bread for dunking. I always want the deviled eggs, and the catfish po’boy, and the jambalaya, and that cheeseburger. The roast chicken’s good too! And the fish dishes! But more than anything I crave Highland Kitchen’s coconut curried goat stew, and that’s what I’m having. The goat is delicious, tender and flavorful, and I wish more restaurants served it. Root vegetables, plantains, and rice are ideal foils for the spicy golden curry. It’s been a great dish since Highland Kitchen opened, and it’s a great dish still. (In 2015, in the final round of the Globe’s Munch Madness restaurant tournament, Highland Kitchen invaded competitor Island Creek Oyster Bar with a baby goat, a brass band, and the gift of a case of Budweiser. It won.)
Then we eat warm banana bread pudding with caramel sauce and whipped cream. Hey, we had a salad.
A De La Louisianne — rye, sweet vermouth, Benedictine, Herbsaint, and Peychaud’s Bitters — is the perfect nightcap in the light drizzle. I sip it slowly, drinking a silent toast to an old friend now gone with whom I used to come here often. So much has changed since I last ate at Highland Kitchen, and it’s as bittersweet as what’s in my glass.
It’s real life, and there’s no better place to celebrate and mourn it. The next day, when I open my refrigerator, there are leftovers.
150 Highland Ave., Somerville, 617-625-1131, www.highlandkitchen.com