By Joe Johnson
Highlander’s Grill & Tavern has quickly become an entertainment, food, and drink destination for the Town of Banner Elk since its initial opening in June of 2018. Highlander’s offers a wide selection of food items and beverages in an atmosphere dedicated to keeping guests entertained and happy during their visit.
Highlander’s is located in the Shoppes of Tynecastle shopping center in the same location as the now-closed Nick’s restaurant that had been in operation for 32 years serving the High Country. Dave Marich, owner of Highlander’s Grill & Tavern, purchased Nick’s in 2018 and decided to renovate the property and make several major changes in order to improve the atmosphere and products offered by the establishment.
Marich and his wife, Karen, along with their children, are originally from Florida but spent many vacations up in the High Country throughout the years experiencing the exceptional skiing offered at locations such as Beech Mountain and Sugar Mountain. In 2016, Marich retired after spending 35 yearsin law enforcement, retiring from the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office in 2016. They decided to move into the cabin his family had been using as a rental property near the Linville Caverns. As retirement progressed for Marich, he felt the creeping force of boredom setting in along the way due to the lack of stimulation that he regularly received as a law enforcement officer. “This business is just different,” said Marich, “I thrive on stress; I mean, as a cop, you pretty much have to thrive on stress. They say the number one killer for cops is retirement, because at age 55, after four or five years out of law enforcement without having the adrenaline rushes, former cops just drop dead.”
After buying and renting out a couple of other properties in the High Country, Marich decided to search for local businesses that were up for sale and found that the owner of Nick’s was looking to sell. The Marichs would routinely visit Nick’s every time they vacationed in the High Country to enjoy the food and watch Miami Dolphins games; they got to know Nick’s well and felt it was the right move to buy the business. “I discussed buying Nick’s with my wife, and at first we were a bit hesitant, having never been in the restaurant business,” said Marich, “However, I had a lot of business experience; my degree is actually in business. So I said, ‘Well, I don’t know if I can run a restaurant, but I can run a business,’ and we made an offer on Nick’s restaurant that was accepted. We bought Nick’s restaurant in June 2018 and we haven’t been bored since; this business is an adrenaline rush every day! Whether it’s someone not showing up to work, or someone is unhappy with their food, every day is truly a new day.”
Marich had a vision for Highlander’s that involved a substantial overhaul of the interior of the restaurant. Marich’s vision involved Highlander’s becoming the premier entertainment spot for the Town of Banner Elk, which required a full makeover of the restaurant in order to change the establishment’s atmosphere. The renovations began with the entertainment room in September 2018 with repainting, remodeling, installation of new flooring, the procurement of new chairs and tables, the construction of a stage, and the addition of eight widescreen televisions; nothing in Highlander’s entertainment room is original to Nick’s. “We didn’t want to move away or break from tradition with anything that works with us, but we are constantly looking for things like new food items and entertainment; just about anything to improve our business and improve our standing in the community,” said Marich, “We want everybody who comes to Highlander’s to have fun! That is our main goal: when you come into Highlander’s, we want you to have fun.”
Nick’s closed for the entire month of November 2018 to focus their efforts fully on renovating the rest of the restaurant to create a more entertaining, sports-oriented atmosphere for the business. 26 new televisions were added to the restaurant’s walls, the bar was completely remodeled, their selection of beers on tap went from six beers to 14 beers, and Buzztime trivia stations were introduced throughout the restaurant for patrons to enjoy real-time trivia and online poker games. Marich feared some of the Highlander’s staff may not return to work after a month-long hiatus to make these major renovations, but as it turned out, he was gladly mistaken and the restaurant was reopened with resounding success the following month. “We reopened as Highlander’s Grill & Tavern on December 1, 2018. Every single one of our staff members came back when we reopened,” said Marich, “Not one person left. We expanded the kitchen for them and cleaned everything up; probably 5% of what is in the restaurant is original to Nick’s. That was our goal was to clean it up because it really needed cleaning; from the stoves to the refrigerators to the floors, it just needed a remodel. Nick’s had been here for awhile.”
Not only was the interior of Highlander’s completely renovated, but their opportunities for entertainment were revamped as well. Highlander’s has maintained the schedule of karaoke on Friday nights that was established by Nick’s, but they have added more activities and events throughout the week for patrons to come and enjoy. Saturday nights at Highlander’s now features live music performances from local bands such as The Collective, Smokin’ Joe Randolph Band, Powder Keg Outlaws, and Thirty Ought Six in the renovated event room. Live trivia is now held on Wednesday nights at Highlander’s, which has been known to routinely draw in enough patrons to have the event room packed with visitors wall-to-wall. Recently, Highlander’s recently introduced a unique game called “MINGO” that is conducted on Thursday nights at the restaurant; MINGO is an abbreviation for “Musical BINGO” which involves a DJ handing out BINGO cards filled with names of songs which the DJ will play over the loudspeakers. Participants will fill out their cards if they hear the corresponding song played by the DJ in hopes of winning the MINGO round and receiving gift certificates as a reward.
In accordance with Marich’s dream of transforming Highlander’s into an entertainment and sports-oriented hub for Banner Elk, the establishment now features every Sunday NFL football game throughout the building. “We have every NFL game that is played on every Sunday because we have the DIRECTV package here. The method was we put eight televisions back here; that mirrors eight televisions in the front room and eight televisions in the bar,” said Marich, “The reason for that is nobody will come in here on Sunday and not be able to find his or her game playing on a television. If 16 teams are playing, which is eight games, there is a game on every television in every room and there’s always a place to find your game.” Avery Journal recently named Highlander’s Grill & Tavern the “Best of the Best Nightlife Entertainment” in Avery County in 2019, serving as a testament to the successful vision that Marich has to transform Highlander’s into the entertainment hub of Banner Elk.
Another significant transition that Marich made at Highlander’s was restructuring the menu and adding plenty of new food items for patrons to enjoy, although Highlander’s still features a section of the menu with customers’ favorites from the old Nick’s menu called “Nick’s Classics”. New menu items introduced by Highlander’s feature dishes that are not just typical bar fare, but also include cuisines of high quality that you may not expect. “We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, but we wanted to take the best of the best from places that we have visited and things that we have liked,” said Marich, “We would go to restaurants down in Orlando; we’d go to restaurants down in Georgia; we’d go to restaurants all over the country every time we traveled. Those experiences are what we based this on; we would evaluate what their food items were, what their best food items were, and then we would incorporate those experiences into our menu.
Dishes that have been developed specifically for the Highlander’s menu include unique items such as a Brussels sprouts appetizer topped with bacon and balsamic vinegar, which sells out every day, a 10-inch pretzel served with beer cheese and hot mustard, Mahi-Mahi filets that have been a huge success with customers, as well as perfectly cooked burgers, sandwiches, and wraps. Other popular items on the Highlander’s menu include a Philly Cheesesteak and a jalopy that is a holdover from the old Nick’s menu. However, the pride and joy of the kitchen at Highlander’s is clearly the chicken wings that are offered to customers in over 10 different flavors with varying amounts of heat. In fact, the chicken wings at Highlander’s are so spectacular that Avery Journal recently named Highlander’s wings the “Best of the Best Chicken Wings in Avery County” in 2019, as chosen via polls from the local community.
Highlander’s dismissed the old purveyor of food that used to be contracted with Nick’s and hired Blake Sorensen of Performance Food Group (PFG) to take over the food purveying duties; Marich has been especially pleased with the quality of food that PFG is able to bring to the kitchen on a daily basis. Marich and Sorensen, his PFG food rep have worked together to bring a higher standard of food to Highlander’s since its genesis in order to make everyone feel satisfied during their visit to the grill & tavern.
Taking into consideration all of the activities, events, food items, beverages, and overall joyful atmosphere that keeps Highlander’s bustling on a daily basis, the main goal set by Marich still stands; make Highlander’s a welcoming and casual environment for every visitor to enjoy and ultimately feel happy about their stay. “One of the strategies we came up with, it was actually Blake and a friend of his; if you look at our menu, it defines what a Highlander is,” said Marich, “If you come into Highlander’s, whether you’re from New York State, or Miami, or San Francisco, when you’re in here, you’re a Highlander. We try to make everybody feel welcome here; we want everybody to have fun here and we want everybody to have a good experience. Do we always meet that goal? Not always; but that is the goal of Highlander’s and it is constantly what we strive for.”
Highlander’s Grill and Tavern is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week from 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. During their weekly nightlife events on Fridays and Saturdays, Highlander’s is open until 2 a.m. Highlander’s begins broadcasting the earliest NFL football game every Sunday and continues to show each game until the last one ends at about 10:00 or 11:00 p.m.
Entertainment at Highlander’s: