How a broken pipe gave Manoli’s time to rethink its menu

The flooding closed the acclaimed Greek restaurant in Salt Lake City for four months.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Manoli Katsanevas, chef and co-owner of Manoli's in Salt Lake City, working at his restaurant on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.

Like the phoenix of Greek mythology, Manoli’s has once again risen from the ashes.

“We’ve had a restaurant for seven years and this is the third time we’re reopening it,” Manoli Katsanevas, chef and co-owner of Manoli’s, said recently, as he stood on plywood in the middle of the unfinished dining room, as he waited for new flooring to arrive in port in New York.

While the pandemic forced Manoli’s (at 402 E. 900 South in Salt Lake City) to close to dine-in service, and then get creative with takeout options into much of 2021 – including a Gyro Thursdays promotion that once sold out in nine minutes — the most recent closure might rank as the most heartbreaking.

On Dec. 30, a destructive flood from above, from a broken overhead water line, ruined the restaurant’s ceiling, walls and floors. At first, they thought the damage was minimal — but, in the end, it closed the restaurant for more than four months, causing Manoli’s to miss out on such lucrative events as New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, the return of the Outdoor Retailers’ trade show, the NBA All-Star Weekend, Easter and Mother’s Day.

Manoli’s, though, has regenerated again, with its reopening on May 16.

Katsanevas and co-owner/chef Katrina Cutrubus come to the table with even more dedication to their shared Greek heritage, as well as a restored interior and expanded outdoor seating on the patio. And because of insurance payments, they also have retained most of their well-trained and cohesive 32-person staff through the closure.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Manoli's in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.

Refined food and drink

In hindsight, the flood allowed Katsanevas and Cutrubus to laser-focus their menu offerings once the restaurant reopened. In the years since Manoli’s first opened its doors in 2016, the way Utahns eat has changed significantly. Guests who were once unfamiliar with shared small plate formats are now embracing the meze concept wholeheartedly.

Looking back at sales over the years, Cutrubus said, “our entree sales are so much lower.

Everyone orders a ton of small plates now, or they’ll get entrees to split. It’s a better dining experience and it’s a lot less waste.”

So the menu concept of Manoli’s 3.0 continues to reflect a heavy focus on protein and vegetable mezes, featuring seasonal and fresh choices, while delivering the type of food the restaurant is known and recognized for — such as yemista, a simple vegetarian starter offering smoked feta-stuffed piquillo peppers accented with olive oil and black sea salt. Another favorite, htapodi, is a seafood meze that features charred octopus, Zürsun beans and a green olive relish with a flourish of sherry vinaigrette that viscerally delivers diners right to the Grecian seaside.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Garides, a grilled shrimp dish, at Manoli's in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.

“We want to make sure the food and service is the exact same as it was before,” Katsanevas said, which means weekend brunch returns along with dinner service – and, of course, the customer favorite lamb burger.

All those experiences are what longtime customers are most excited to see return.

“Manoli and Katrina’s warmth, welcoming hospitality and creative Greek menu has set their restaurant apart as one of Salt Lake’s premier dining experiences,” said Diane Sheya, former owner of Salt Lake Culinary Education (SLICE), who, along with her husband Rich, worked closely with Katsanevas to help teach new chefs.

“One dish we especially missed is the krytharaki, the mouth-watering orzo combined with cheeses, caramelized onions and crispy bread crumbs on top,” Sheya said. “Manoli’s re-opening is definitely a special occasion, and one we are excited to celebrate.”

Manoli’s commitment to using Utah products in the bulk of their menu also continues. “All of our eggs are local, all of our milk is organic,” Katsanevas said. “We make our own homemade yogurt and cheeses. We do a lot of stuff in house — everything except for breadmaking.”

Cutrubus points to their relationship with herb farmer Josh Lambros of Lambros Farms as an example. “We’re getting whole oregano from him. It’s really beautiful and super fragrant,” Cutrubus said, adding that Lambros gets his oregano seeds from Greece.

Manoli’s guests also can enjoy a retooled and re-energized cocktail and wine program — maintaining 25 to 30 wines on the wine list.

“Every wine on our list is special-order Greek,” Katsanevas said. “We have natural, organic, whites, reds, rosés and sparkling on the menu, and we’ve added an orange wine section which is all Greek. Our bar program is more extensive with Greek gins and liquors.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The bar at Manoli's in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.

The Beard nomination

Perhaps the most gut-wrenching part of Manoli’s unplanned closure was that guests couldn’t celebrate the restaurant’s nomination for a James Beard Award, in the “Outstanding Hospitality” category, announced in late January.

The honor in the hospitality category recognizes “a restaurant, bar or other food and drinking establishment that fosters a sense of hospitality among its customers and staff that serves as a beacon for the community and demonstrates consistent excellence in food, atmosphere, hospitality, and operations while contributing positively to its broader community.”

Katsanevas said he was honored to have been nominated for this particular James Beard Award, because it represents all the best that a restaurant can offer. “Those awards definitely give you the extra motivation,” he said, knowing that people seek out nominated restaurants to visit merely out of curiosity and recognition.

“Manoli so deserves an award,” said Marguerite Henderson, herself a well-respected chef and longtime Manoli’s customer. “He’s the most conscientious restaurateur in the city for sure. He’s front of house and back of house at once.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Psomi bread, with olives, at Manoli's in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.

Expanding the patio

Insurance covered the repairs to make the restaurant’s interior look as it did before the flooding. Manoli’s took advantage of the break to make some changes to the building’s exterior.

Before the flood, Manoli’s had planned to expand the patio on the restaurant’s west side. Because of the flood, that work got underway much earlier, as the contractor worked on both the interior restoration and outdoor project in tandem. The patio expansion will allow for more seating and serving space, as well as accommodate outdoor shoulder seasons.

“It’ll feel very airy and open,” Katsanevas said.

Once the patio opens this summer, guests can experience al fresco dining when two large folding windows are opened, yet more protected and temperature-controlled seating will still be available during inclement weather.

Through it all, Katsanevas and Cutrubus said they are grateful for their silver lining: The restaurant’s supportive neighborhood, loyal customers who placed the same order every week during the pandemic, and those who are celebrating their return to delivering Manoli’s brand of Greek hospitality.