Why did Sea Salt close?

Salt Lake City diners have been asking that question for nearly three weeks, ever since the Italian restaurant at 1709 E. 1300 South was abruptly shuttered.

It happened just before Valentine’s Day without warning. One day, customers were enjoying the pizza and pastas created by chef/owner Eric DeBonis; the next day, the breezy restaurant with its open kitchen and marble bar was closed for good.

Passersby who look in the windows see an empty space — everything from the plates and wine glasses to the tables and chairs is gone. Signs that read “Restaurant Space Available” hang from the glass doors and include a telephone number for Marketplace LLC, the owner of the building.

The situation has created more questions than answers. Was Sea Salt struggling financially? Did the landlord force DeBonis out? Did DeBonis close to focus on other projects?

The story involves some of that, plus attorneys and lawsuits.

Richard Brown, the property manager, declined to comment on the Sea Salt closing except to say: “It was time for Eric to move on and the building owners to get a new tenant.”

Paul Lyon, owner of Marketplace LLC, has not responded to comment requests from The Tribune.

Jon V. Harper, Sea Salt’s Salt Lake City attorney, said his client’s contention is that “the landlord used erroneous accounting to harass the restaurateur to the point where DeBonis felt the need to file a lawsuit” and ask a court to declare that Sea Salt was not in default.

“Sea Salt believes the landlord no longer liked the lease deal it cut,” Harper told The Tribune, noting that the landlord believes commercial rent rates have gone up significantly since 2008, when Sea Salt signed its original lease.

In response to the lawsuit, Harper said, the landlord invoked a rent escalation clause and made it retroactive eight years. “They demanded immediate payment of $139,000, at which point Sea Salt felt it had no choice but to close.”

Harper added: “The landlord wanted Sea Salt out by Valentine’s Day, and it got what it wanted.”

Restaurants close all the time, so why has Sea Salt generated so much curiosity? It’s DeBonis. He has been one of the golden chefs of Salt Lake City’s food scene. Opening The Paris Bistro in 2001, he was one of the first to buy fruits, vegetables and ingredients produced in Utah.

In 2010, he followed up with his second restaurant, Sea Salt, in a brand new building where an old gas station once stood. The restaurant, a nod to his Italian heritage, helped complete a destination corner for Salt Lake City that also includes Harmons Emigration Market, Eggs in the City restaurant and Jolley’s Pharmacy.

And Utah diners have been looking forward to two new projects announced by DeBonis, including Oddfellows Food Hall, 260 S. 300 East. The grill and bar, next to Under Current Bar, has been in the works for two years — but has yet to open.

DeBonis also had been working with a developer on a Mexican restaurant at 1234 S. 1100 East, near Liberty Heights Fresh in Salt Lake City.

However, the relationship between DeBonis and the landlord — Kingfisher Capital LLC of Park City — went sour.

According to a lawsuit filed by Kingfisher in 3rd District Court, DeBonis failed to “pay rent and other amounts” owed under the lease. The company is seeking back rent and damages in excess of $50,000.

DeBonis has filed a counterclaim saying no rent was due because Kingfisher never completed construction of the building as per the original agreement. He contends he would have had to spend tens of thousands of dollars to complete that work before he could even obtain a building permit for the restaurant space, Harper said. “It’s a classic disagreement over the language of a lease.”

Meanwhile, DeBonis has been focusing his attention on The Paris Bistro, announcing earlier this week on social media that he has put some of Sea Salt’s favorite items on the menu.