There’s a charming cafe on Highland Avenue, beautiful and bright, with natural sunlight streaming through a wall made up entirely of windows. In the dining room, two-dozen tables are adorned with white tablecloths and topped with little rectangular vases holding fresh-cut flowers, their deep red hue subtly echoed by maroon-colored cloth napkins folded into rose shapes.
It’s the perfect place to treat yourself to lunch on a weekday afternoon—and it also happens to exist in a building where, beyond the threshold of the restaurant’s double doors, you might hear the metallic slam of lockers and the excitable voices of teenagers catching up between classes.
Each autumn since 1986, Somerville High School has opened the doors to the Highlander Cafe, a student-run restaurant that’s a project of the culinary arts program. Students enrolled in the program are in charge of running virtually every aspect of the restaurant, from designing the menu to preparing and serving food. Two faculty members act as head chefs, supporting the students.
The cafe’s ambiance—plus the knowledge that it helps educate Somerville teens—are enough to draw in hungry patrons. But it’s the food and service that ensure they come back.
On one October afternoon, Rita Lodi was enjoying lunch with her niece at a two-top table in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows. She graduated from the school in 1943, more than four decades before the Highlander Cafe existed. In the high school she knew, buying food at lunch was a luxury, to say the least.
“In 1943, not many students ate in the cafeteria,” Lodi explains. “Students couldn’t spare [money] to eat there, no matter how inexpensive it was. They ate their sandwiches from home, and maybe some fruit.”
“This is a real gem for the Somerville community,” her niece adds, smiling across the table at her aunt as they wait for their food. “What an extraordinary way for young men and women to learn a skill and benefit the community.”
Marissa Toner, who was waiting on Lodi’s table, is a senior at the high school. She explains that sophomores and juniors do all the prep work back in the Highlander kitchen, while seniors cook on the line with the chefs and fill front of house roles like waiting tables.
Toner says she aspires to be a pastry chef, but she enjoys the well-rounded experience she’s gained working various positions at the cafe. “I love [the culinary arts program],” she says. “I like the customer service part of it. Front of house is a lot of fun.”
Jose Lizama, another Somerville High School senior who works in the dining room with Toner, also seems pleased with the program. “I just like to cook,” he says simply as he explains why he joined the culinary arts program last year.
The menu at the Highlander Cafe changes every two weeks, and this year’s inaugural offerings included steamed seafood appetizers, two types of salads, pizza, burgers and even lobster.
The delightful dishes—and the dedicated students cooking and serving them—have earned the restaurant a passionate group of patrons. Seated just a few tables over from Rita Lodi, Joel Lynch echoes her sentiments. “I think [the program] is terrific. It’s great for the kids. They’ll be able to go right to work after school,” he says. “They’re very polite. I’m very impressed.”
“Some restaurants should send their staff here for some retraining,” he adds with a grin.
Lynch may have a point. The Culinary Arts Program website lists positions that have been held by its alumni: pastry chef at Formaggio, chef at Lolita, first chef at Tufts University. Many now work in the community at Somerville favorites like Foundry on Elm, Redbones Barbeque and Highland Kitchen.
Rory Perryman, who was enjoying one of the most popular meals of the week—a boiled lobster with potatoes and corn—was impressed. “This is phenomenal, and I’m from the Cape. The presentation is great. The students are polite. Nowhere else could you get this quality of food for this price.” (The going rate for Perryman’s 1.25-pound boiled lobster and accompanying side dishes was just $10.)
Could Highlander put Mt. Vernon Tavern—with its famed two-lobster special—out of business? “Well, they have Keno… and alcohol,” Perryman says with a laugh. Otherwise, he says, it could be a close match.
Seated next to Perryman is Somerville High School Principal John Oteri. He agrees: “This [menu] is going to be hard to top. They have sold out of lobster every day this week.”
Leo DeSimone, the director of the school’s Center for Career and Technical Education, nods his head in agreement, looking at the dining room proudly. “They’re doing great,” he says.
As for what’s on the menu over the following weeks? Toner has some ideas. “I threw out the idea of a brunch burger [to the team], so basically eggs benedict but with a burger instead of ham,” she says. “But we’ll see.”
The Highlander Cafe (81 Highland Ave.) is open Wednesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. during the school year.
This story originally appeared in the November/December print edition of Scout, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.