The story of the new Inman Square restaurant Highland Fried starts and ends with a local chef’s exalted fried chicken, but a detour where the owners veered from their gut instincts nearly derailed the now-flourishing restaurant.
Husband-and-wife restaurateurs Mark Romano and Marci Joy—owners of Somerville’s Highland Kitchen—weren’t planning on taking over a previously owned restaurant, but when they heard in 2016 that Cambridge’s fabled East Coast Grill would close its doors for good, they pounced on the opportunity to revive it.
Romano and Joy’s iteration of East Coast Grill, with a renovated interior but some of the same beloved spicy dishes, survived less than a year, however, shuttering in December. The duo thought focusing on the food was enough to win back fans, who in the restaurant’s heyday had flocked to East Coast Grill for its “Hell Night,” a marathon of spicy dishes, and its laid-back atmosphere.
“We just misjudged that everybody had already said goodbye to East Coast Grill, and then it was closed for a year before we got it back up and running,” says Romano.
Rather than dwell on the loss, just five days later Romano and Joy opened another restaurant, Highland Fried, in the 1271 Cambridge St. space.
They could have sold the lease, says Romano, but decided to stay. “We liked the location. We felt like we could do it better our way,” he says.
The neighborhood spot, a mash-up of a tiki bar, a barbecue joint, and a fried chicken shack, represents a return to their original vision for a second restaurant.
With the success of Highland Kitchen, the gastropub Romano and Joy opened in Somerville in 2007, the couple had been toying with opening another restaurant for years, they say. Their instinct told them a second restaurant in the area should build on the “Highland” brand.
“Originally, we were looking for another offshoot from Highland Kitchen for a while, kind of off-and-on, semi-serious, and then whenever we saw a spot that we thought might work we kind of dug in a little bit. We never really found anything,” says Romano.
“We switched gears from our original plan” by buying the 31-year-old East Coast Grill, Joy explains. But a return to their initial idea brought Highland Kitchen’s “younger sibling” to the table.
Ajuke box, a pool table, vintage arcade games, a tiki bar (in a nod to East Coast Grill), and an all-day menu make Highland Fried a place you can sidle up to and end up sticking around in for hours.
And that’s part of what’s made the new restaurant a success, Romano and Joy say.
Their menu has range. “We’re not just a strict barbecue house,” says Romano. But you should order what they’re famous for, he says: “Three-piece fried chicken dinner with a biscuit and mac and cheese.” “And a nice salad,” Joy adds.
Wash that down with the “Pain Killer,” a mix of pineapple and orange juice, coconut, and overproof rum. Cap it off with their Key lime pie, both agree.
The couple knew they wanted their new venture to have an obvious tie to Highland Kitchen and draw on its reputation, hence the “Highland” part of the new spot’s name.
However, “We didn’t want to open up another Highland Kitchen,” says Romano. “We wanted to take one of the good things about Highland Kitchen and expand on it a little bit.”
So Romano decided to build Highland Fried’s menu around his “really popular” fried chicken, which began as a Monday night special at Highland Kitchen.
“Most barbecue places in the South serve fried chicken, but I think our twist on it is that we’re a fried chicken place that serves barbecue as well,” says Romano. “We kind of flipped it.”
Romano thinks the restaurant’s name conjures a relaxed mood and invites people to indulge in foods that would be more of an ordeal to make at home.
“It’s more like a state of mind, like ‘Let’s all get Dixie Fried,’ ‘Let’s all get Highland Fried,’ meaning, you go out, you have a good time, there’s a little something for everybody, good food, reasonably priced, everybody’s welcome, neighborhood place,” he says, referencing the Carl Perkins song “Dixie Fried.”
Joy, who’s not a big meat eater, made sure there were vegetarian and non-fried foods on the menu. But leading with a guilty pleasure has worked, they say.
“Look, everybody loves fried food—everybody wants to pretend like they don’t,” says Romano. “You know fried food is decadent, it’s a treat, it’s like ice cream, it’s like pizza,” he adds.
East Coast Grill made its name in part due to its casual atmosphere—excellent food didn’t have to be served on a white table cloth, former owner Chris Schlesinger proved.
That vibe continues in Highland Fried. Romano and Joy believe in keeping things down-to-earth, and they argue that creating an atmosphere is just as important as creating good food. It’s a lesson they learned at Highland Kitchen, a place that’s “welcoming to all walks of people,” says Romano.
And just like at Highland Kitchen, the decor is a work-in-progress, a mish-mash of found objects, vintage memorabilia like records and a 3-D painting, and gifts including a taxidermied wild boar head from the Everglades.
Highland Fried plays to Inman’s “funky” side, especially with the tiki bar, Romano says.
“That’s where the kind of funky Inman Square thing comes into play, where it’s like, ‘What does that really have to do with fried chicken or barbecue? A tiki place?’ But that’s why I like it, because it’s different. Why not?” says Romano.