Manatakis: Imagination and Food Equal Success at Uncle Nick’s in NYC

Tony Manatakis is a high school dropout turned floral designer turned restaurateur and founder of Manhattan’s Uncle Nick’s restaurant. Its 20th anniversary is next year, but it seems like it has been on Ninth Avenue and 51st Street forever. “We’ll have a big party,” says Manatakis, the sole creative force behind Uncle Nick’s. He decorated the restaurant taverna-style, planned the menu, and wrote the entertaining bill of fare.{57457}
He arrived in the United States via Crete and Athens at age 12 and soon found himself confused by John Adams High School in Ozone Park. “The school system in New York was a zoo. The kids had a lot of freedom, but they didn’t know what they were doing. They were screaming at the teachers. They were fighting in the hallways. I told my mother: ‘I must leave and go back to my country.’”
Instead, Manatakis went to work at Rigas Florists in Richmond Hills, and within a year was a full-fledged floral designer. “I enjoy working,” Manatakis says. “I like business, and like many Greeks, I went out at a young age and worked hard.” Manatakis eventually opened his own flower shop, Robin Hill Florist, “but then a vacant store became available around the corner.” He decided to open a Greek restaurant. “I was always watching my father cook, and my mother. In Greece they had a couple of tavernas. In 1990 I realized there were few Greek restaurants in Manhattan. Most of them had moved to Astoria. Many Greeks were afraid to open up on the West Side because this was the Hell’s Kitchen area. The East Side was trendier at the time.”
Manatakis took the plunge, naming the restaurant in honor of his father, who was on the scene in the early days. “I had no formal education in food, but it runs in the family. I like to eat, and said even if I fail, I’ll have my friends come and eat. We’ll run it like a club, a Greek club. But two months after we opened the door, it was unbelievable, the success. We got a write-up in New York magazine. The write-up did it.”
Gael Greene, a celebrity in her own right, known for her perceptive and witty food reviews, had discovered Uncle Nick’s. She called Manatakis and left a message. “I thought it was a joke. I called her back but I was sort of ragging her. She said I’d like to give you a write-up because you have great food, but you don’t have enough tables. I asked her how many chairs I needed to qualify. She said, ‘At least forty.’ I said ‘The other room is opening next week. It will be ready on Tuesday.’’
Manatakis used his floral decorating skills and friends to transform the backyard with plywood and props. “We had wonderful statues that an Astoria guy brought in from Greece. We had kerosene heaters. It was really beautiful.”
Greene wrote the review for New York, including high praise for the red snapper. Manatakis, still learning the restaurant trade, had put it on the menu at $12.99. “I used to buy the red snapper at the Fulton Fish Market for $10.00, not realizing that I was barely making a profit. But people started flocking to it, so I said let’s keep it going.”
Today, Manatakis says the secret to the restaurant’s continued success is “quality, quantity, and consistency. We cook with olive oil, not butter. People are more knowledgeable today than ever before. They like the Mediterranean diet. They like to eat fish, greens, and vegetables. A vegetarian could happily eat here. We have good, fresh, clean food, and we don’t decorate it. When I was in the flower business, I saw a lot of decorations. So when you eat here, you won’t find any floral arrangements on your plate. We just give people good food.”
He has broken the rules of the Greek restaurateur by taking a month off every year, as well as the holidays of Easter, Christmas and New Year’s. “When I came into this business, I spoke to a very dear older Greek lady. She said the restaurant business is great but restaurateurs don’t have a life. I decided that it’s quality of life that counts. Don’t be afraid to take off. Some Greeks worry too much about money and go crazy if somebody robs a shrimp. If you’re going to be like that, then you don’t deserve to be in the business. It’s going to happen anyway. You have to enjoy your life.”
He sometimes spends a month in Crete. “I didn’t return until I was 32, 18 years after I left.” Would he retire there? “I love Greece – most of us have an Odysseus complex – with the urge to get back to the island. But my home is the United States. Actually I’m a New Yorker. When you leave New York and you’re anywhere in the world, you can’t forget it, because you’ll see New York in the news, and you’ll start to miss it. I was in Greece, up in the mountains, and picked up an American station on the radio, and heard a theater review, and I actually started tearing, because I said ‘I’m here but my heart is in New York.’”
Manatakis is married to his childhood sweetheart, Pamela, whose background is Sicilian and Italian. They met at age 15 and are the parents of two daughters. Their oldest daughter, Sophia, just graduated from the French Culinary Institute, and will be “the third generation at Uncle Nick’s.” He is considering opening another Uncle Nick’s in New Jersey, or in Del Ray Beach, FL.

1 Comment

  1. Hope you go to Del Ray, Beach Fl.
    Better yet Ft Lauderdale, Fl, needs Good Greek Food.

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