Here's Everything You Wanted to Know About East Coast Grill's Reopening
We sat down with new owners Mark Romano and Marci Joy to talk about the restaurant's storied past and bright future.
When news broke in April that Highland Kitchen owners Mark Romano and Marci Joy purchased the recently shuttered East Coast Grill (the worst kept secret in Camberville), you could hear the collective exhale. Since opening in 1985, East Coast Grill followed owner Chris Schlesinger’s unique vision for what a restaurant could be. With eclectic flavors and familiar service, he cultivated generations of loyal patrons and an impressive family tree of restaurant talent.
While Romano and Joy are technically the third set of owners, this feels like the true passing of the torch from Schlesinger. Joy worked at East Coast Grill for seven years while Romano helped open another (former) Schlesinger property, The Blue Room. The story has a nice kind of symmetry.
I have a long history with Romano and Joy. I started working for them as a server at Highland Kitchen in 2008. (I still use the Ikea dish set they gave me as a parting gift.) After a year, I left for New York only to be wooed back as the assistant general manager.
We’ve been through a lot together. If you can believe it, there wasn’t always a line out the door for brunch, and I worked many Sundays alongside Romano, nursing hangovers while serving bloody Marys and pancakes to a handful of regulars. When I came back to manage, the place was a machine. My job was to keep it running smoothly and play a decent outfield for the company softball team. It’s been three years since I worked there but we remain close. I met with the couple at East Coast Grill to discuss the plans for their latest venture.
The following interview has been edited for length and content.
What’s your relationship to East Coast Grill?
Marci Joy: I worked here as a server from 1995-2001. I loved it. It was a turning point for me. It was so much fun and I learned so much. I made lifelong friends. Working for Chris [Schlesinger] I learned a ton about how to interact with people. The whole concept of cultivating regulars was not really something that was in my scope before. I was here during important times in my life. My mom passed away when I was working here and it became this really important place for me.
Mark Romano: You were here during the transition.
MJ: When it was the old East Coast Grill, when it was just this skinny room that we would pack people into. So many covers, it was crazy. The kitchen was open and the music was loud. It was a good time. I remember reading something in the Phoenix where they stopped by and peeked in the windows while we where setting up because the servers made sidework look fun.
MR: You had a good time. It changed the way you thought about the restaurant business.
MJ: It did. I loved coming to work here. I was really proud saying I was a server at East Coast Grill.
MR: I was a bumpkin from Florida working at 29 Newbury and I was looking for a change. I learned how to cook in Florida in high volume places and whatnot, but I never worked anywhere that was cutting edge.
East Coast Grill, it was one of those magical kinds of places. A funky place that you really didn’t find in Boston back then. It was more like a place you’d find in New Orleans. I remember coming in here and talking to Chris. We didn’t even talk about food or anything. We started talking about the Red Sox. He gave me a beer and after about ten minutes he hired me. I was like, 'alright this is going to fun'. It was American guys doing ethnic food and it opened up a whole new universe of cooking.
MJ: And it was fun.
MR: It was the first American restaurant I’d worked in that wasn’t set up like a French kitchen. It was an eye opening experience. Like Marci said, I made a lot of friends. People I still know today who I respect in the restaurant biz. It was a whole new experience on many different levels.
When did you two meet?
MJ: No, we met in ’95 the day before Thanksgiving.
MR: Whoops. It was a long time ago. I was close. We met each other basically through East Coast Grill.
MJ: When we went out on our first date, we sat at the bar at Chez Henri and Joe McGuirk was our bartender and now Joe is coming here.
What will Joe’s role be?
MJ: He’s going to be our bar guru. What did he call it? Bar sensei?
MR: Bar whisperer.
What are the influences from East Coast Grill that made their way to Highland Kitchen?
MR: Putting a premium on hospitality. Making sure everybody leaves happy every night. Hiring people, not only for their work ethic, but for their personalities. To allow people to be themselves within the structure of the restaurant.
MJ: And also trying to make a fun place to work. We really wanted people to enjoy being there and feel a part of it.
MR: The ethos of treating each other like you’d treat the customers and trying to create a family-like atmosphere.
Why are you buying East Coast Grill? Why now?
MJ: We’d been looking at a bunch of spots when we saw that East Coast Grill was getting sold. Mark called up right away. Then he called me and I said how’d it look and he said, “Awesome, it’s the East Coast Grill.” It’s like coming full circle.
MR: The things we consider appealing are that it’s close to Highland Kitchen, and we’ll be able to manage two restaurants that are close together, but won’t compete because the concepts are different.
MJ: There was also the sentimentality.
MR: I haven’t gotten to that yet.
MJ: Okay, sorry.
MR: If someone had told me in 2007 that we’d have a successful place in Spring Hill and then we’d also own the East Coast Grill, there was no way I would ever believe that.
When I was younger, I wanted to buy the Green Street Grill, but that didn’t work out for various reasons. I loved the Green Street Grill, I loved East Coast Grill.
MJ: They’re special to us.
MR: Yeah, they're special to us.
MJ: And we also like the idea of restoring it.
MR: I love the food here. I love the whole concept of this place, so I think it still works. I don’t know what happened, or why it wasn’t working for the previous owners, but I think there’s still a place in the world for the East Coast Grill.
MJ: There will always be a place
MR: And I like a challenge. Before I bought Highland Kitchen, I showed it to a lot of people and a lot of people said don’t do it.
MJ: I said don’t do it. It took him three months to convince me to make an offer.
So the plan’s not to change much?
MR: The plan is to restore the basics of what the place was. Hospitality and the food, with maybe a little more emphasis on the barbecue and an updated bar program.
MJ: Sort of put our own stamp on it.
MR: Spruce it up
MJ: Make it our own.
MR: But the concept of the food, drink and live fire is all going to stay.
I know everyone’s already asked, but what about the things people are familiar with, like Hell Night and the bloody Mary bar?
MR: What I’ve been telling everyone is we’re planning on doing all that stuff, we just don’t know when. But I’ve already talked to Dr. Pepper, he’s on board. I’m just asking everyone to be patient and let us get the restaurant up and running. Chris didn’t do Hell Night when he first opened. It took a few years.
MJ: I don’t think it will take a few years.
MR: No, but we want to do it right. And the bloody Mary bar, we are going to reconfigure the bar a little bit so I’m not sure on that, but we will be doing brunch eventually.
We’re still going to serve raw bar. I think we’re going to focus more on ceviche and tuna poke and stuff like that, along with oysters and clams.
And I think we’re going to add some sandwiches. We’re going to add some new wrinkles to the menu. But we’re still going to have the rare tuna, tuna tacos and Buffalo fried shrimp. We’ll bring a lot of the classics back. We want people to walk in and hopefully they’ll see change, but they’ll be comfortable with the food and the atmosphere being very familiar.
MJ: A familiar vibe. But a somewhat different aesthetic.
Are you going to have a juke box?
MR: No, no jukebox here.
That’s Highland’s thing?
MR: That’s Highland’s thing. The main thing from Highland that we’re going to bring over here is the fried chicken. Every day but Monday here and Monday at Highland Kitchen.
What’s the importance of East Coast Grill to Boston, and why is it important to keep that tradition going?
MR: If you were around when it opened, there really wasn’t another place like it.
MJ: It was groundbreaking
MR: It was a place where you could get barbecue and these really spicy equatorial dishes in a professional, almost a fine dining setting without the trappings of fine dining.
MJ: I mean I can’t think of another place back then that you got that.
MR: It was really friendly and hospitable in a funky atmosphere and the food was on the level of all the other top chefs in town.
MJ: You could go in jeans. You didn’t have to dress up
MR: It was one of the first places that incorporated the customers into the atmosphere of the restaurant. They were in on how the night was going. So I think all those things, back in’85, were pretty groundbreaking. Obviously, Chris was a great chef and he carried it on for a long time. And it’s an honor to try to revamp that and put our spin on it.
MJ: There was such a big outpouring from the community when it closed. It was really touching and nice to feel like you were a part of that. It was so important to so many people. There were so many regulars. We watched their kids grow up. To think that they’d come back would be really nice.
MR: I think that’s why it was important to Boston. It was a change in the right direction.
MJ: It paved the way. It’s also an example of a chef, like we did with Highland Kitchen, a chef going into a neighborhood where there was nothing else going on. Inman Square when he opened wasn’t a destination spot and he sort of showed that you don’t have to go to where all the action is. People will go to you if you do something really well.
MR: I think there’s still a space for this kind of place because, you know, you see it at Highland Kitchen, these neighborhood places are still vibrant. I see a lot of restaurants and they’re chef driven and they all look like barns and have small plates. Nothing against them, they’re all great places, but I’m stuck in the’80s. The plates are going to be full plates. The place is not going to look like a barn, I guarantee that.
MJ: Like a barn?
MR: Nothing against that, but it’s not going to look like a barn.
MJ: I also think it’s impressive how long it was open and how important it became to people and it’s nice to not have it end.