East Coast Grill Is Firing It Up, Again

Can a restaurant that was cutting-edge in the ’80s survive in today’s competitive dining landscape? At Cambridge’s recently reopened East Coast Grill, chef Mark Romano is about to find out.

east coast grill

Marci Joy and Mark Romano behind the bar at East Coast Grill. / Photograph by PJ Couture

Back in the mid-’80s, when the Boston food scene was still shrouded in white-tablecloth formality, chef Chris Schlesinger shocked diners by serving blackened tuna with green chili sauce while blasting “Burning Down the House” at his small, steamy Inman Square eatery, East Coast Grill. Part feast, part endurance test, the restaurant’s spicy-food-laden “Hell Nights,” which offered many locals their first taste of the infamous “ghost chili” pepper, quickly became legendary. Even the staff was having a good time at East Coast Grill—especially when customers ordered the “kitchen beer appreciation special,” a six-pack of PBR sent to the cooks standing behind the live-fire grill.

But the party didn’t last forever: Eventually, Schlesinger decided he needed a break—“restaurant years are like dog years,” he says—and in 2012, he announced he was selling East Coast Grill to former employees Jason Heard, James Lozano, and Robin Greenspan. Then, in early 2016, the new owners said they were closing it for good. After one final Hell Night, the neon cocktail sign hanging in the window went dark.

East Coast Grill’s somewhat sudden departure stunned its legions of devoted fans, many of whom took to social media to eulogize the iconic neighborhood spot. Among the mourners were Highland Kitchen chef-owner Mark Romano and his wife and business partner, Marci Joy. They’d met through the restaurant in 1995, when Joy was a server at East Coast Grill and Romano was cooking at the Blue Room, another Schlesinger-helmed restaurant in Cambridge that he later sold. “It was the first place I worked where all the employees were invested,” Joy says.

Indeed, East Coast Grill proved to be far more than just a lively place to eat—it was also a training ground that helped bolster Boston’s culinary cred back when the city was known mostly for clam chowder and Parker House rolls. In addition to Romano, alumni include Andy Husbands, who went on to open Tremont 647 and the Smoke Shop, and Rendezvous founder Steve Johnson. Fondly remembering their time spent in Schlesinger’s restaurants, Romano and Joy—who’d already been looking for a second project—decided to step in. “We called Chris and told him we wanted to bring it back,” Joy says.

After renovating the tiki-themed interior, the couple reopened East Coast Grill this January, with a menu that includes Schlesinger-era favorites such as “Jerk Wings from Hell” and spice-crusted mahi-mahi re-created right down to the last dash of chili powder. Do they worry about the risk of resurrecting a throwback restaurant? “Nah,” Romano says. “I think there’s still room for what we’re trying to do here. At the end of the day, we’re going to keep our heads down and cook good food, like we’ve always done.” Schlesinger agrees. “I couldn’t be prouder,” he says. “They saved the East Coast Grill from the junk heap of restaurants. It’s like a zombie—you can’t kill it.”

east coast grill inner beauty hot sauce

Courtesy Photo

Some Like It Hot

Inner Beauty Hot Sauce, the Caribbean-style, scotch-bonnet-pepper-based blend Schlesinger developed decades ago at East Coast Grill, lives on today.

Inspired by the bold flavors he tried while on a surfing trip to Barbados, Schlesinger created Inner Beauty to bring a bit of Bajan fire to Boston.

What’s In It
Ingredients include scotch bonnet peppers, “cheap” yellow mustard, mango juice, brown sugar, vinegar, curry powder, cumin, and coriander.

Where to Get it
Formaggio Kitchen sells it; the Automatic serves it on its “Frito Pie from Hell”; and the new incarnation of East Coast Grill drizzles it on jerk chicken wings.