In 2022, opening a restaurant was admittedly far from Michael Papetti’s radar. The founder and president of a successful tech startup, Papetti landed upon an opportunity that year to purchase an historic building along buzzy Bay Avenue in Highlands. It was a clever business move, as Papetti was interested in growing his commercial real estate portfolio, but the fifth generation Spanish-American was also enamored with the space. Built in the 1930s as the area’s first post office, the building still featured original terra-cotta tile and large casement windows. When the landlord’s first tenant, a restaurant owner, decided to close up shop three years before his lease expired, Papetti was struck with an idea.

“There were a few times I thought to myself, I bet I could find the right people to run a restaurant that I would love to see in this area,” noted Papetti, who’s been visiting his family’s native Spain nearly once every year since he was 16. “The food in Spain is simply incredible, and there weren’t really any authentic Spanish restaurants in Monmouth County. When my tenant wanted to retire, I decided to go for it.”

A short time later, Bistro Iberia opened its doors. “I scrambled and posted a ton of job openings,” recalled the owner. “In one week, I screened probably 50 executive chefs before deciding on a CIA graduate from Freehold who shared the same passion for Spanish cuisine. I bought new equipment, hired an entire staff, and turned the place around in just a few weeks.”


From the onset, Papetti had a purist mindset. His goal was to capture the flavors and magic of a classic Spanish bistro to share with his Garden State neighbors. The menu would be small and authentic, a collection of scratch-made starters, mains, and tapas that transported diners to the cobbled streets of Seville. The intimate setting, filled with just 11 tables, presented like a postcard from Spain, boasting an original tin ceiling, romantic dim lighting, and large windows overlooking the sidewalk so guests could feast on Serrano ham and manchego while watching the outside world saunter by. The restaurant opened during slow season, but Papetti felt confident word would soon spread.

As Anthony Bourdain famously said, “If anything is good for pounding humility into you permanently, it’s the restaurant business.” Sure enough, just as the bistro was getting off the ground, Papetti’s executive chef quit abruptly, 24 hours before Bistro Iberia hosted two major events, including its first private party and the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve.

“It was a Hail Mary moment,” said Papetti. “Our remaining staff rallied together and I even called in the help of my mom, who is an incredible cook and who has traveled to Spain even more than I have. We were able to pull off both events with f lying colors. Originally, I thought I might close the restaurant for a few weeks in January and February, since everyone had been telling me that would be the slowest time of the year. Then a social media influencer stopped by for dinner one night, and I ordered her one of everything on the menu [short on staff, Papetti himself served her table]. Two days later, my phone was lighting up with reservations on OpenTable. The food was always there, we just needed to learn how to get people in the door.”

The reservations continued to pour in, and today there’s rarely a slow night at Bistro Iberia. In addition to Monmouth County locals, residents from up and down the state and across the Hudson make the trip for paella de marisco and jamón ibérico off the shoulder, often accompanied by live Flamenco music. Papetti recalled one couple from Madrid driving nearly two hours to share a dinner that reminded them of home. “Many of our customers are world travelers who love Spanish cuisine, which is a testament to what we’re doing here,” noted Papetti. “It’s hugely rewarding to have native Spaniards living in the U.S. as repeat customers.”

Papetti currently serves as the acting executive chef, working closely with his kitchen staff on menu creation. “Team building and collaboration are huge components of what’s going on behind the scenes,” he said. “I get my hands dirty with the cooks. There’s a lot of creativity happening, and they teach me just as much as I teach them. Something I’ve learned over the past few months is that a restaurant is only as good as its team; if the relationships aren’t there, nothing works.”

Meals begin with a plate of fresh bread, baked in-house daily, alongside an assortment of olives, a Spanish bistro staple. Diners can then choose from a menu of six first courses, six main dishes, and a selection of seasonal tapas that change frequently. Starters span lobster crepes with leeks, foraged mushrooms, and truffle butter, and gambas ajillio, fresh Carolina shrimp topped with garlic confit, olive oil, and paprika. Mains include grilled swordfish, honey lavender roasted duck breast, and a traditional seafood paella with scallops, shrimp, mussels, and clams. The tapas, Papetti explained, are particularly fun, for both the customers and the kitchen staff.

“We get creative,” he said. “I pull from dishes I’ve fallen in love with while visiting Spain and collaborate with the cooks to come up with fresh new ideas. For example, we recently made a cracker out of crispy fried sunchokes, then topped it with seared tuna, lemon, white asparagus, coriander cress, and Osetra caviar. We also did an ice cream interpretation of a classic Spanish dessert called Crema Catalana. We’re always experimenting.”

Papetti knew that if the menu was going to win over Spanish natives and a global clientele, sourcing the right ingredients would prove vital. Many items arrive fresh from Spain, including the olive oil, octopus, chorizo, olives, jamón, and whole anchovies for the boquerones fritas. Libations are also integral to the experience, and the BYO eatery carries the accoutrements needed for several Spanish classics like sangria or tinto de verano, a red wine cocktail made with orange Fanta. “We are currently a BYO establishment, but we wanted to enable guests to have the experience of sipping authentic cocktails and drinks.”

With warm weather approaching and the early trials and tribulations behind him, Papetti is prepping for the upcoming busy season with a calendar of live music performances, including traditional Flamenco. “In the summer, I plan on removing a table by the window and bringing in Flamenco dancers to give our guests both dinner and a show.”


Bistro Iberia

122 Bay Avenue, Highlands / 732.769.6377 /