Wharton: Diners love Bountiful's Mandarin restaurant
How did it come to be that a Greek pharmacist opened one of northern Utah's most popular Chinese restaurants in a quiet residential neighborhood in Davis County 35 years ago?
The story of the wildly popular Mandarin restaurant involves the Korean War, 84-year-old Greg Skedros who still works 60 hours a week and a building that once served as a corner drug store, beauty salon and pizzeria.
Skedros said he earned his pharmacy degree in 1950 and then served in the military during the Korean War, primarily in the Philippines. But he did get to Hong Kong, a fact documented by a photo that hangs in the restaurant above a shot of what the Chinese city looks like today.
He opened a corner drug store at 900 N. 400 East, where the award-winning restaurant is now located, in a tiny shopping center in 1961, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
"As things progressed with the pharmacy, I noticed that almost every grocery store was going into the drug store business, and I could see the handwriting on the wall," said Skedros. "Corner drug stores would not be around much longer, so I looked into something else."
A pizzeria in the little complex had just closed, so there was space available.
Working with a friend, Skedros began making plans to open a Greek-Italian restaurant.
But the friend got cold feet. The space was available, but Skedros had nothing to put into it. Looking around Bountiful, he noticed that the only Chinese restaurant at the time was a tiny hole in the wall. So he decided to try that cuisine 35 years ago.
He found a couple from Vernal to help set things up and hired a wait staff and two cooks. During that time, he began developing the nearly 30 different kinds of homemade sauces that would be a hallmark of the Mandarin dining experience, one that his daughter Angel Manfredini helps maintain as a co-owner.
Max Mercier, who owned a famous French restaurant in Salt Lake City for years, gave Skedros an important bit of advice:
"Know the sauces," Skedros recalls Mercier telling him. "Whatever you do, learn the sauces. Guys will come and go, but you always will have the sauces, so nothing will ever change."
Skedros closes the restaurant for three weeks every fall for a thorough cleaning. This year, he took a trip to China to check on recipes and get new menu ideas.
Touring the kitchen and coolers with him, it is obvious that he knows every inch of the Mandarin. He should. The owner did much of the finish work on the restaurant's unique design as it expanded from 60 seats to its current 210. The entire place, inside and out, is spotless.
It's also quite international. Skedros hires Chinese cooks from San Francisco, giving them room and board nearby. There are also Spanish speakers in the kitchen. Throw in English and a little Greek, and it's an interesting mix of nationalities.
"It's a tough business," he said. "My presence in the kitchen is so important. They see me at my age, as hard as I work, and I think they know I expect them to work as hard as I do. And it has worked."
That fact is obvious. There is often a wait to get into the restaurant, which offers monthly specials such as the upcoming "Woktoberfest" that gives diners a chance to try different small dishes, Shanghai meatballs or Dan Dan Noodles. This month, the Mandarin offered a dish made from fresh local produce. One weekend, he purchased a fresh 80-pound halibut that was then encrusted with cashew nuts, a lemon-lime sauce and curry.
If you dine there, don't be surprised to see Skedros greet you at your table, something that remains a big part of the Mandarin experience.