For a long time, I’ve had Petros in Los Olivos on a short list of restaurants I wanted to write about.

Recently, I got what I wanted, lunch with the charismatic man behind the moniker, Petros Benekos.


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I expected a pleasant restaurant with staples of Greek food and a leader who, between running a clothing company, operating two restaurants and opening a third, was comfortably hands-off. Maybe, I thought, I would get a few good quotes from him and then migrate to the kitchen staff for the real story behind the food.

But what I found was a man passionate about his work and a restaurant that spurned the title of Greek food in favor of something better descriptive of the land on which Benekos grew up.


The place

I arrived at Fess Parker’s Wine Country Inn in Los Olivos on a cloudless afternoon. A pair of flag poles, one with the United States flag another with the Texas state flag, protruded into the blue sky. I walked between them, up a short path to Petros’s front door.

I stepped inside to the reception and bar area that greets guest. The dining room spreads out to the right and to the left; the lounge opens up onto a patio. In the lounge, there are great tables of rough hewn wood and wide leather chairs. Soft red flames fill a hearth in the corner of the room and add to the room’s minimal yet rustic feel.

Benekos will later tell me his design was based on the taverns near where he grew up. The simple white walls and wooden floors are meant to complement the natural beauty outside, not overshadow it. “It is such a beautiful place, you don’t need to hide from it. The same is true here,” he said.

This afternoon, I’m in the company of Journal advertising representative extraordinaire Michelle Neels, who needs to chat with Benekos’s staff about an upcoming ad.

Benekos emerges from somewhere in the back of the restaurant, chatting with a staff member. He is a broad-chested man who walks with quick purpose in each step. He gives a strong handshake and smiles from a face with rugged features. It is expressive and mapped with lines that trace an inviting smile or, one imagines, a stern scowl if called upon. His attire reflects his involvement in the clothing industry; a graphic polo, fashionable jeans and stylish sneakers.

I stand by as Michelle asks if his assistant is in. Benekos informs her that his assistant is away, but says he is ready to make the decisions himself. He looks over design sheets, throwing in comments as he goes. “I think the word ‘buffet’ needs to be bigger,” he says, speaking of the restaurant’s new brunch menu.

When he talks, Benekos has a habit of tapping your knee and winking on the words he wants to emphasize. When he becomes really animated, the thudding consonants of his Greek diction help to hammer home his points.

After a few more minutes of making quick decisions, we are ready for lunch. “There is something I want you to try,” he says. He summons a staff member from the kitchen and describes what we will be having for lunch in a hushed tone. As the cook heads back to make our lunch, Benekos says, “This isn’t even on the menu yet.”


The food

In a few minutes, Michelle and I get a plate set with a heaping salad and lamb sandwich. On first bite, we have the same reaction; “Oh my gosh – this is good, really good.”

The toasted bun was stuffed with shredded lamb shoulder, tomato, greens, goat cheese and caramelized onions. Benekos tells us that the lamb is cooked for more than four hours before it makes its way onto the sandwich. The tenderness of the meat gave me no reason to doubt him.

The sandwich, which he plans to price around $10-15, is something Benekos created to serve the lunch crowd, looking for something friendlier to their wallets than a whole entrée.

Next up is a dish straight from the old country. Benekos said when he first moved to America, he tried a lot of Greek restaurants but was disappointed in their food. One thing he always wanted but could never find was a traditional Greek salad, so he decided to open his own restaurant, where he could make it the way he liked it.

The salad is really better described as a tower. At its base are plump heirloom tomatoes and fat olives. “These tomatoes cost $1.20 each, they are very hard to find – and the olives, you’d never find anything like them in a normal store,” says Benekos. He’s right; they possess a rich earthy flavor and are almost buttery in texture.

The next layer of the salad is stacked high with cucumber spears. He assures me they, too, are sourced only from the finest produce. This is followed by a mixture of feta cheese, onions and avocado. On the top, a single square of feta is covered by herbs and olive oil. Benekos is quick to point out that this salad could only be dressed with olive oil. “If you have a Greek salad with vinaigrette, this is not Greek, this is something else.”

With Benekos’s disdain for the inauthentic, it may be surprising that he chooses to add avocado to his salad. But he says even though they might not serve it in Greece, it holds well to the spirit of the food. He said where he grew up, it was all about fresh food from the area. And though he still receives shipments of wild oregano from his mother in Athens, he decided the best way to be true to the style of cooking he loved was to incorporate local ingredients from California. He has dubbed his restaurants Hellenic-Californian cuisine. He said he strives to serve simple, good food that isn’t as heavy as what many American’s know as “Greek food.” To him, most of America’s Greek restaurants tend toward heavy meat and potato dishes, or even miss the geographic mark completely. “Do you know I went to this ‘Greek’ restaurant and they had belly dancers. That’s Arabic, not Greek.”

What Benekos is serving harkens back to how he remembers Greek food growing up and allows for recent advancements in the county’s culinary style. Like French or Italian cooking, he wants Greek food to be vibrant and growing, not a caricature. That is why he makes the differentiation between Greek and Hellenistic food, the latter harkening back to a more ancient name for his homeland.

For his own lunch, Benekos grabs a passing frittata from a waiter. He offered us some of the fluffy eggs cooked with onions and covered in a house salsa. This will be part of Petros’s new brunch menu, which aims to offer something different than the norm.

Benekos said while it may start with eggs, the options on his menu will be more expansive than the typical prime rib brunch. For starters, he’ll throw in meats like lamb and add diverse sides, not to mention a pitcher or two of favorite breakfast cocktails. “It’s all about affordable fun and good food,” he says.


What’s next

After lunch, we said goodbye to Michelle, and I settled into my interview with Benekos. Before we began, he disappeared into the kitchen and when he returned he was carrying two hand-made cappuccinos. As we talked, I learned Benekos is full of compelling stories, more than I have room to write.

There are captivating tales of how he got his start in the restaurant business. How he hired (and then fired) top chefs from around the country. How he gets 80% of his recipes from his mother and aunts, whom he brought over from Greece to help him early on. I could talk about his clothing business or the many accolades he has won for his original Zagat-rated Petros in Manhattan Beach.

I could talk about how his love of the Valley inspired him to open his second restaurant or about how his wine list is largely local and even features a few Greek varieties. Pages and pages could and have been filled with stories about the man and restaurant. A visit to his original restaurant’s website shows that Benekos has been featured in many of Southern California’s most respected media outlets.

But all that is in the past, and it looks as if some of Benekos’s most interesting stories are in the future. His third restaurant, located in Santa Barbara, will open in the coming months. To fully realize his vision, Benekos bought the building his restaurant will be housed across from the Arlington Theater.

He set to work on a massive remodel project, creating full dining areas both inside and on a patio. He plans to stay open late, build a special rotisserie for roasting meat and create a menu that will rival even his first restaurant. With the volume of customers in downtown Santa Barbara, he is able to stock more items and move them faster.

Above all, Benekos remains committed to ideals that he says lead to success. “Hard work, simple common sense, loyalty and communication. If you have these four things, there is no way you can fail, no way.”

Even in a down economy, he isn’t too worried. A strong subscriber to the value of hard work, Benekos thinks a little bit of hardship might be a good thing if it gets people to start creating and striving to improve.

“I hope by giving competition to other businesses, they improve. That’s our job, and competition is great. If I stay open late, they have to stay open late; it helps the whole neighborhood. And that’s not just for restaurants, it’s for every business.”

Petros

Inside the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn and Spa

2860 Grand Ave., Los Olivos

(805) 686-5455

www.fessparkerinn.com

brookshire@syvjournal.com