Taking it to the Next Level

04 Oct 2023

Primary Restaurant + Bar is as delicious as it is stunning



With a glass of wine or craft cocktail in hand, first time visitors to Primary Restaurant + Bar will enjoy the stunning interior, peruse the inclusive and succinct menu, and ponder a starter or two. Parmesan truffle fries, crispy fried duck wings and tempura fried Brussels are all tempting. They may, however, be puzzled at one of the six options – bacon. To be clear, it’s honey and pepper crusted applewood smoked bacon, but still. Bacon?

Servers will attest that it takes just one order of eight thick strips of pepper crusted bacon individually clipped to a cleverly designed wood frame wafting through the dining room and kitchen to intrigue diners. “As soon as one goes out, we know several more orders will be right behind,” says Curtis Higgins, owner of Primary and just-opened Prime Highlands Steakhouse. “We had the bacon as an appetizer at our restaurant in Colorado, and it was extremely popular. We found a better way to present it when we brought it here.”

The restaurant Higgins refers to was Elk Avenue Prime, a steakhouse in the heart of downtown ski destination Crested Butte. The plateau can thank Maureen and Keith Gamble, regular guests at Elk Avenue Prime, who urged Higgins to open a restaurant in Highlands, where the Gambles have a second home.

They were apparently persuasive, and in November 2021 Higgins and the Gambles purchased Meritage Bistro with the intent of reconceiving it to an upscale steakhouse. Then Tug’s Proper – which had struggled to regain its footing following the death of owner Robert ‘Tug’ Helmer just two years after he opened it – became available, and in April 2022 the partners added that to the Prime Dining LLC portfolio.

Within a month, Tug’s signage had been replaced with Primary Restaurant + Bar. Higgins brought in his former Elk Avenue executive chef Ivan Giani to serve as general manager of both restaurants and one of his best sous chefs, Stephen Alonzo, to be sous chef of Primary.  Dave Templin, recruited locally, serves as executive chef for both restaurants.

When the doors to Primary opened in May 2022, the chic, sophisticated interior – an expansive dining room on one side and bar/lounge on the other, defined by a glass wall with folding doors – had not changed. A spectrum of rich blues and charcoal grays paint the walls, tobacco leather covered banquettes and booths border the main room and, on the lounge side, are upholstered in plush deep blue velvet. Two cozy and comfortably furnished conversation areas bookend the long wood, metal and slate bar, fronted by leather barstools with curved backs. Framed photographs and original art are abundant; lighting is dramatic throughout.

Higgins says his restaurant philosophy overall is an uncompromising commitment to the highest quality ingredients for pared down menus that ensure freshness. “Our products are expensive and don’t come out of a freezer,” he says.  “We keep it fresh and take everything to the next level.”

At Primary, the menu is contemporary American, with a notable global nod via the superb ahi tuna tower.  This colorful assembly resembles a petite cake – from the bottom up a pool of chipotle aioli, centered with a thick disc of sushi rice flecked with fresh crab, a layer of pink diced raw tuna, and a fan of avocado slices crowned with black masago.

Aside from the bacon, another signature starter is the sweet cream cornbread baked with chopped bacon and aged white cheddar and served with a ramekin of honey butter with sea salt that is so addictive, Primary sells it by the pint to take home.

The Iceberg Wedge – chilled and crisp with blue cheese dressing and blue cheese crumbles, that irresistible honey pepper bacon and a tall tangle of fried tobacco onions – is the most popular of the four salads.

The dinner menu includes two sandwiches – crispy fried chicken and NY strip steak – and a Waygu burger from Providence Farmstead in neighboring Otto. The casual section of the menu, Higgins says, is there for the folks who sometimes just want a sandwich and fries.

Though the foundational proteins of the house specialties can be depended upon – salmon, North Carolina trout, a few steak cuts, an enormous double cut dry aged Duroc pork chop, lamb chops – the presentations are where the kitchen can play, particularly when it comes to adding a sophisticated southern spin.

The trout and shrimp entrée is a glorious celebration of all things corn – cornmeal crusted pan seared trout and cornmeal dredged flash fried rock shrimp, laid over two triangles of golden polenta cake, lightly charred grilled corn ribs, sweet corn niblets strewn across it all, with sautéed spinach adding a pop of bright green. “The corn we’ve been getting this summer has been exceptional, but it won’t last forever. We will always have a pan-seared trout on the menu, but the renditions of it will change as needed.”

Higgins says that while the menu is not farm to table, they do source locally as much as possible given the area’s short growing period and pay attention to the seasons when building a dish.

A lifelong chef and student of hospitality excellence, Higgins endeavors to lead by example and build supportive teams. “I want my staff to know what my expectations are and what I would do in any situation and be empowered to do it. Setting that bar high, our guests can be confident in the experience they will have in all our restaurants.”

Primary Restaurant + Bar

310 Main Street, Highlands, NC

(828) 526-3555

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