At Highlands, it's all about coffee and community

Highlands Manager James (Papa J) Jones poses with long-time customer Cheryl Mabry 

Here's the next edition of the Petworth News Restaurant Spotlight.

by Yuliya Panfil

It’s a Tuesday night, but Highlands, located at 4706 14th Street NW, is bustling.

Two friends order twin pasta dishes; a bus driver comes in after her shift for takeout; a regular sits against the colorful mural, nursing a glass of white wine; another regular picks up a post-workout strawberry smoothie.

This little neighborhood café, which opened on 14th Street in 2007, has a lot of range. Coffee and eggs benedict in the mornings, London broil sandwiches for lunch, blackened salmon for dinner, and its famous chicken and waffles (with scrambled eggs for good measure) all day long.

But one thing stays consistent: community.

“Everyone here knows Highlands,” says Cheryl Mabry, a long-time Petworth resident who has been coming to this café since it opened 11 years ago. “The food is delish. The ambiance is good. And, you see your neighbors in here.”

Patrons eat dinner on a recent Tuesday evening 

Indeed, the contrast between Highlands and its closest Petworth rival, Slim's Diner, is a microcosm of the difference between 14th Street Heights and the Upshur drag. While the masses crowd to the buzzier Slim’s up the block, Highlands has cultivated a robust and loyal local following, thanks to its consistently tasty food, reasonable prices and welcoming vibe.

"We have a home-like feel,” explains manager James Jones (who insisted I call him Papa J). “Everyone comes here, from infants to senior citizens. All are welcome here.”

While Highlands stays busy all day, it seems to really pop during the mornings, when workers from the WMATA bus depot across the street come in for coffee and breakfast, and during Sunday brunch, when Jones says there’s a line out the door.

“On Saturdays and Sundays, its jam packed,” Mabry agrees. “You can’t get in here.”

Highlands on a recent Tuesday. On weekends there's a line out the door 

I popped in recently to sample Highlands’ signature dish, the chicken and waffles (served with cheesy scrambled eggs). It was the ultimate comfort food – fluffy waffles and moist chicken breast, topped with a dollop of butter and a sprinkle of powdered sugar. At the risk of committing a chicken n’ waffles faux pas, I added a hearty splash of hot sauce. The dish didn’t disappoint.

Highlands' signature chicken and waffles 

Jones says that while the chicken and waffles are Highlands’ most popular offering, he’s partial to the gumbo, served spicy, New Orleans style.  "Really though," he says, Mabry vigorously nodding her head alongside him, "Everything here is good."

“My motto is, if you like it already, you’ll love it at Highlands.”

Chef Mauricio Garay opened Highlands in 2007 as a local hangout, where neighbors could come together over a strong cup of coffee and some comfort food. Over the years, the menu has evolved to include healthy salads, Latin foods, soul food, pastas, and of course a large offering of java. A “Specials” board next to the coffee counter changes daily to reflect seasonal ingredients and food industry trends.

Customers line up at Highlands' counter for coffee and to pay their bills 

Highlands is active in the community, hosting birthday parties, providing Thanksgiving dinner to neighborhood associations, and donating portions of proceeds to various causes. For example, Highlands is giving 10% of this Sunday’s proceeds to Mustard Seed.

“Highlands is beautiful because it’s small,” explains Delmy Centeno, who has been working at the café for the last two years. “You feel like you’re in your home.”

Highlands employee Delmy Centeno says her favorite dishes are the cajun pasta and the chicken breast 

Highlands Cafe
4706 14th Street NW
Monday - Friday: 7:30 am - 9:30 pm
Saturday: 8 am - 9 pm
Sunday: 8 am - 4 pm