NESTING ATOP EAGLE ROCK RESERVATION WITH A STUNNING VANTAGE POINT OF NYC, THIS HISTORIC RESTAURANT AND SPECIAL EVENTS VENUE ENTERS THE NEXT CHAPTER OF ITS ENCHANTING STORY
BY AMANDA McCOY • PHOTOS BY AMANDA DOMENECH & ALEX BARRETO
Today, within the hallowed walls of the Highlawn, each time a diner takes their first bite of 24-hour Bolognese under a crystal chandelier, or spectators cheer as a nervous guest rises from his knee to slip a ring onto the finger of his new fiancé, the moment was 250 years in the making. The landmark restaurant rests on one of the highest points in West Orange, and its roots run deep. Hundreds of couples have exchanged vows in the lush pavilion, the same overlook George Washington used in the Revolutionary War to track British troops. In 1911, the building that would become the Highlawn was erected as a refreshment stop for travelers, and during WWI Thomas Edison used the site as a naval research facility to conduct furtive experiments to aid the war effort (making breakthrough advances in early sonar detection). But the Great Depression sent the building into disrepair, and it would remain abandoned until the 1980s, when a family of restaurateurs assumed control with an ambitious vision for its next chapter.
“The Knowles family purchased the property and employed a complete renovation of the space,” noted Anthony Frungillo, a third-generation restaurant veteran and, along with his wife Jennifer, the current proprietor of the Highlawn. “It became an icon. I’ve been going to the Highlawn for 30 years. Every major family event was celebrated here, and anytime I entertained business clients, this is where I would take them. Over the years, we became friendly with the Knowles, and I always joked that if they were ever interested in selling, to call me first.”
Though the sentiment was mostly made in jest, in the spring of 2021, the Knowles family decided to pass the reins after nearly 40 years of ownership. When they approached Frungillo, he said the opportu- nity was far too great to pass up. “It felt like a once-in-ten lifetimes opportunity to own a magical property like this,” he said, who began his restaurant career alongside his brother Michael in their father’s food service company, Gourmet Dining Services. “The most important thing to the Knowles family was finding a buyer that would run the business like they did.”
Today, Frungillo continues the legacy the Knowles began four decades ago, but with fresh energy for the Highlawn’s next 100 years. He hired what the owner called a “tremendous” management team (including general manager Salvatore Feli, head chef William Prunty, and beverage manager Nick Apostolopoulos), and working with his mother Hope, Frungillo and his wife refreshed the 26,000-square-foot building, lending a more modern, minimalist touch. Bronze and crystal chandeliers hover over white linen-topped tables, and large arched windows overlook the 408-acre Eagle Rock Reservation and Manhattan skyline.
“We wanted the space to be modern yet simplistic,” added the owner. “The reason we went that way is because the Highlawn offers one of the most beautiful views in New Jersey. In the main dining room, we really wanted to showcase the arched windows that offer panoramic views of NYC. We are still one of those places that pay attention to the finer details like white tablecloths and fresh seasonal flowers.”
The menu was crafted to reflect an upscale dining experience and comprises mostly slow-made Italian-inspired classics plus an assortment of top-end, dry-aged steaks. Seafood is delivered fresh daily, and all pastas and desserts are handmade in house. Options change with the seasons. The colder months will see cozy dishes like slow-roasted prime rib bathed in 48-hour veal jus, while springtime brings dry-aged beef tartare with capers, horseradish, and fettunta. House-made gnocchi with spring peas, ramps, and 34-month prosciutto di parma is another timely favorite. Appetizers span jumbo lump crab cakes spiced with Calabrian chili and Sorrento lemon aioli, local burrata finished with sun-dried pepper conserva, and grilled thick cut bacon smothered in a dense amaro maple glaze. Pasta dishes include cavatelli with sweet sausage and broccoli rabe, lobster fra diavolo, and a rotating risotto of the day made with Acquerello rice. “It’s super high-end,” added Frungillo of the rice. “It holds its structure and doesn’t break. It really speaks to the authenticity and attention to detail of the ingredients.”
The steaks are a highlight, spanning high-end options like a juicy A5 Miyazaki sirloin, prime bone-in strips and rib-eyes, and a 40-oz tomahawk for two. For dessert, locals will rejoice that the beloved s’mores cake – typically a summertime edition – will be added to the spring menu. “Chef Punty really fits our model of taking a simple, seasonal approach to the menu,” said the owner. “He does a great job of making upscale, fine-dining dishes recognizable.”
Events remain a pillar of the Highlawn experience, and the property hosts everything from intimate birthday parties and bridal showers to 175-person weddings. There are five different spaces: the Grill Room, the Skyline Ballroom, the Piano Room (with an atrium currently under construction), the leafy and scenic Garden Pavilion, and the intimate Wine Cellar, a nod to old-world Italian romance. Mother’s and Father’s Days, Kentucky Derby, and Christmas season feasts are all celebrated here. “With all the celebrations that happen here, from the proposals to the weddings, there’s a tangible excitement in the air,” added Frungillo. “It’s almost a magical feeling to be involved with a property like this.”