BORN FROM A PASSION FOR HERITAGE, FAMILY, AND AUTHENTIC GREEK FARE, THIS MODERN MEDITERRANEAN EATERY WHISKS PATRONS FROM MANALAPAN TO THE DREAMY ISLES OF SANTORINI AND MYKONOS
BY AMANDA MCCOY • PHOTOS BY AMANDA DOMENECH
It’s a warm summer evening in Manalapan, and the front door of Anemos Greek Cuisine opens to a symphony of laughter, glasses clinking, and the soft sizzle of fresh saganaki. Smiling affably and greeting regulars by name, a cheery host escorts patrons to their linen-topped table under crisp white drapes and glistening chandeliers. A server offers complimentary shots of metaxa (a golden amber brandy) or ouzo (a dry, anise-flavored aperitif ) before proposing menu recommendations based on wine pairings – all traditional practices in native Grecian restaurants. Authenticity, explained the restaurant’s owner Helen Maragos, is a cornerstone of the Mediterranean eatery.
“When you travel to Greece, the people are very warm, open, and welcoming,” noted Maragos, who opened Anemos eight years ago alongside her mother, Bessy Arvanitis, a native of Thiva, Greece. “We wanted to offer our guests the same experience. The goal was to make Anemos feel Grecian and authentic, but also cozy and homey. We not only know our regulars by name, but we know their favorite dishes and where they like to sit.”
The Arvanitis family is no stranger to navigating the variable waters of restaurant ownership. Upon moving to New Jersey in the early ‘80s, Bessy and her husband Chris opened their first venture, Colonial Coffee Shop, in Fords, quickly nabbing a reputation for ten-cent coffee and the best breakfast in town. The duo also launched Christos Pizza & More and the Millenium Restaurant in Woodbridge before relocating to Manalapan and taking over the reins at Gus’s Restaurant on Route 33. “I was practically born into the business,” noted Maragos, who began working in her parents’ restaurants at a young age. “I did in-house work as well as advertising and promotions, and I would manage the restaurants when my parents were away. I developed a love for it.”
After graduation, Maragos followed a pull to teach. She earned her master’s degree in early childhood education and spent the next two decades as a teacher, even penning a children’s book titled What Do You See When You See a Rainbow? Eight years ago, after a gratifying career, she decided the timing was right to take a leap of faith and pursue her other passion: restaurant ownership. “At the time, there weren’t any Mediterranean restaurants in Monmouth County,” she added.
Anemos (“strong wind” in Greek) is open for lunch and dinner six days a week, and also offers takeout and full, white-glove catering services. “Catering has been a crucial component of our business since the beginning,” noted the owner. “The goal was to make Anemos feel Grecian and authentic, but also cozy and homey.”
The menu, spearheaded by Greek chef George Vasilarakis, who joined the Anemos melange five years ago, is a modern interpretation of Mediterranean classics. All the staples are accounted for: scratch-made moussaka, an eggplant casserole stuffed with potato, zucchini, ground beef, and lamb then topped with creamy béchamel; pastichio, a thick Greek pasta with ground beef and lamb blanketed with béchamel; and signature spanakopita, comprised of hand-stretched phyllo filled with spinach, leeks, greens, feta, and dill.
“We have a lot of authentic dishes that you would expect from a traditional Greek restaurant,” noted the owner. “But we also wanted to offer Mediterranean dishes with a creative twist to spice things up.” Innovative spin-offs include a fan-favorite octopus, char-grilled and painted with a homemade lemon olive oil dressing, then presented over a bed of arugula with chickpeas, red onion, and capers. The halibut is also a local legend, dressed in a light lemon caper sauce and served with a bouquet of spinach rice and tomatoes.
Many ingredients are imported directly from Greece, from spices like oregano to the hyper-fresh branzino that’s grilled and served with sautéed baby potatoes, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, kalamata olives, and spinach, all dressed with ladolemono.
“Our ladolemono is made in house,” noted Maragos, who travels to Greece every summer with her family. “It’s a process. Our chefs ferment the lemons, preserve them, then add the olive oil, which is imported from Greece. It takes up to two days to make. It’s something you can easily purchase from a distributor, but it’s not the same. If you want that authentic taste, you make it from scratch. No compromises.”
After eight successful years in business, Anemos recently celebrated a new milestone: the debut of its banquet room, a dedicated space for private or community gatherings. In addition to private parties like baby showers, birthdays, business soirées, and other celebrations, Anemos hosts myriad special events throughout the year. Mykonos Night, for example, is a quarterly fete that transports attendees to the electric Greek isle and features live entertainment by DJ Manny the Greek, Tommy Alvarez on percussion, and resident belly dancer Sasha. On April 16, the restaurant hosted Greek Easter with food specials and a live band, and plans for a Sunday Santorini Brunch are currently in the works. “I took a lot of my skills from my teaching career and translated them into running a restaurant,” added the owner. “You have to be very organized, but also keep it fun and exciting for all.”