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Why can't more of these places be like Highland Kitchen?

So there's no shortage of bars/pubs in the area that attempt to create gastropub experience. Most of them suck. Why is that? Is it that difficult to execute a decent pub menu? Below are some of the winners and losers in my book. Do you agree? Am I wrong that more should be able to do it right?

Winners:

Highland Kitchen
The Druid
Eastern Standard

Not sure yet:

Russell House Tavern

Losers:

Cambridge Common
John Harvard's
The Local
O'Hara's
Paddy's
The Biltmore
West Street Tavern (I think I praised this place in a recent post. After two more visits, I've changed my mind)
Tommy Doyle's

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The Biltmore
1205 Chestnut St, Newton Upper Falls, MA 02464

Cambridge Common
1667 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA 02138

Highland Kitchen
150 Highland Ave, Somerville, MA 02143

Tommy Doyles
349 Watertown St, Newton, MA 02458

Russell House Tavern
14 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138

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  1. I think part of it has to do with real cooking skill. The Highland Kitchen crew turns out seasonal specials that change often (weekly? daily?), which is more ambitious than what most other pubs could hope to muster.

    Plus, isn't the chef at Highland Kitchen the same who used to be at Green Street, hence the inclusion of the goat curry at HK?

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    Highland Kitchen
    150 Highland Ave, Somerville, MA 02143

    1. I'd add the Independent, American Craft, the Gallows, Audubon, and Lord Hobo to the winners list and avoid the losers. Not sure if any of those places are as good as Highland, though.

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      Lord Hobo
      92 Hampshire St, Cambridge, MA 02141

      American Craft
      1700 Beacon St, Brookline, MA 02445

      2 Replies
      1. re: robwat36

        I totally agree re American Craft- it is really one of my family's standby restaurants now. Great food and beer, PLUS Starburst candies on the kid's dishes = heaven.

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        American Craft
        1700 Beacon St, Brookline, MA 02445

        1. re: robwat36

          Those are good additions to the list, esp. Audubon.

          I don't even think JHarvard's and TDoyle's should be on the list, good or bad. These are places that clearly do not give a rat's ass about the food at all, and would be very happy becoming the next Applebee's.

          Cambridge Common, on the other hand, really could be a lot better with just a little effort. Probably could add Christopher's to that list.

        2. More places should be able to do what HK does, and it sucks there aren't more like it.

          It certainly is harder to do what HK does than it is to do what Tommy Doyle's, John Harvard's, and Cambridge Common do. Why should we care to do a good job when we can just sling out crappy, overcooked burgers for $10-12 and still be mostly full every night? HK definitely has more talented people in the kitchen, but too many places can't even meet the low level of ambition on their menu.

          I'd also add Green Street and the Indo to your winners list, even though I think they don't hit the great value mark on food as much as HK does.

          I like the Druid a lot, but one thing that separates HK and ES from the Druid are the superb beverage options. The Druid is great for a pint, but it's not a place to get cocktails or wine. Similarly, I think Audobon, Tory Row, and Miracle do a good job on food and value, but they don't have strength across the board.

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          Cambridge Common
          1667 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA 02138

          Tory Row
          3 Brattle St, Cambridge, MA 02138

          Tommy Doyles
          349 Watertown St, Newton, MA 02458

          1. Sunday night at HK:

            - Soft shell app special - perfectly battered (light coating), perfectly fried (greaseless, golden exterior), perfectly seasoned crab placed delicately atop a heaping pile of arugula, summer-ripe cherry tomato quarters, and topped with a creamy sauce that included a hint of garlic ... the crab was incredibly tender and succulent. It's been awhile since I had a soft-shell. This one was worth the wait.

            - Chicken Tostada app -- damned tasty, messy heap of refried black beans, some nicely shredded chicken, pico and a crazy slathering of jack cheese atop a flat, deep fried corn crisp. I cut mine in 4, and ate it like a pizza. Finger-licking good.

            - Burger - with jack cheese and carmelized onions. Perfect medium rare. Perfect amount of juice and flavor (sirloin and chuck mix, I'd bet 70/30 ratio.) Sturdy bun, no fancy adornments. And freshly fried fries. In sum, a fine burger that surely lives up to the hype.

            All of the above was split with D.C. I washed my portion down with a few #527 margaritas and the rock-a-billy/soul/new wave tunes wafting in from the barkeep's stereo system.

            The HK difference, as always, is the passion they have for their work and craft, and their clear understanding of how to do fun and food just right. Which is why the word perfect/ly shows up no fewer than four times. My only regret is that I was not turned onto this place earlier than 2010 ...

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            Highland Kitchen
            150 Highland Ave, Somerville, MA 02143

            5 Replies
            1. re: Bob MacAdoo

              I tried to go on Sunday night but couldn't get in. Damn you MacAdoo! Ended up at Foundry and was vividly reminded that not all "gastropubs" are alike. The food at Foundry is an afterthought which was fine for that particular companion and night, but man I wish it was better.

              To the OP, I really dig on RHT. Try it a few more times and I think it will move from questionable to recommended status.

              I'd place Gallows squarely in the "Not sure yet" category, as the food has been really inconsistent when I've visited. I want to like it more but I don't yet.

              1. re: yumyum

                In agreement about Foundry, YY. We went to Foundry once we were Mem Day parade-ed out on Sunday. We had a truly bad meal last time - lunchy salads that were shockingly bad (old greens, over-dressed, just yucky in general) AND took forever, so we were ravenous by then...even B, who will eat anything, was not happy with his meal. But we don't like complaining, especially about a pub lunch, to the nice bartender. This last lunch was better, but nothing to write home about. I felt like he recognized us because he was even more attentive than usual, and cut off the runner to check on our food himself. Soft-shell crab sandwich with fries for B (he found it lacking and bland...needed some spice) and I had an ok portobello sandwich with nicely-dressed salad. Both neither great nor offensive, but much room for improvement. But the nice beer and wine and peppy atmosphere keep us happy.

                1. re: digga

                  I've been pretty lucky with the Foundry, which I've found more consistent than The Independent for food. Not saying it is stellar but I've had some very good meals there including the choucroute garnie special in recent times. I would rate the food above "afterthought".

                2. re: yumyum

                  I dig on RHT too (posted the same but it ended up all the way at the bottom of this thread)
                  And I also agree that Gallows is "not sure yet" category...really wanted to like it, and wouldn't say I didn't...but also not necessarily rushing back.

                  1. re: yumyum

                    So, I've reconsidered and I don't think RHT is a gastropub at all -- the focus is clearly on food first and not the beer / wine thing (although those are good too)

                    Had a fantastic lunch there this week and tried a new menu item -- deviled eggs, shrimp, honeydew melon, avocado and micro greens. Dressed with a bit of chile oil, but very lightly. It was just a perfect plate, each element on the plate worked together. Scelfo has a way with eggs, and is using them in many of his current dishes. ** Note the website menu is out of date.

                    Whatever you call it, it's a great restaurant.

                     
                3. Yeah, Highland Kitchen really does it right and so many other places just don't . I've eaten there literally dozens of time and recall only one "meh" meal and that was back when they first opened. I wonder if the chef-owner angle has something to do with it?

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                  Highland Kitchen
                  150 Highland Ave, Somerville, MA 02143