Lunch Specialist

A t first glance, the lunch menu at Zoi’s looks like your standard fare: sandwiches, salads, a side of fries. But there’s a reason why, at lunchtime on weekdays, downtown office workers swarm across Grove Street at Church to get there.

The menu of 27 specialty sandwiches includes beef and turkey that’s roasted in-house. The chicken cutlets are house-made, too. The “daily creations” menu one recent Tuesday afternoon included a surprising Avocado Shrimp Ceviche ($9.95)—not exactly your ordinary deli fare. Touches and twists flavor the breakfast menu, too: For example, the Sweet Pete breakfast sandwich takes the usual bacon, egg and cheese for a ride with caramelized onions, serving it all up on pumpernickel bread ($4.70). “Everybody else around here does all the same kind of stuff for lunch,” owner Pete Maniatis says. “We’ll do the same stuff for lunch, but we [also] want to give you something optional, different.”

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Hopkins School - Open House on October 20, 2019

Maniatis opened the original Zoi’s around the corner on Orange Street with his wife in 2003. Her name is—you guessed it—Zoi, a Greek name meaning “life,” which seemed the perfect moniker for a new restaurant. Two years ago, they moved their operation to a larger space on Grove Street. The real Zoi is mostly home with the couple’s four kids, running the restaurant’s social media and working on catering requests. But you’ll find Pete out front shaking hands with customers he knows by name, checking up on everyone, even taking orders at the door when the line gets too long.

On my visit to Zoi’s, I tried two different specialty sandwiches. The Tarragon Chicken Salad ($7.95) was a sweet variation on the old standard, with shredded Granny Smith apples and candied walnuts playing off the tarragon. The texture of the apples blended right in, while the chopped nuts and some salad greens gave the sandwich a crispy crunch. I ordered mine as a half ($5.50) on multigrain bread, but sandwiches can also be made on wheat, white, rye, pumpernickel, wraps, sub rolls, panino, ciabatta or gluten-free bread.

The Shaved Rib-Eye sandwich on a spinach wrap ($7.95) was even better, a warm and juicy pile of meat oozing with American cheese and topped with grilled onions, lettuce and tomato with mayo. Both sandwiches were served with a giant dill pickle wedge and a side of potato salad.

Zoi’s has figured out how to use its bigger space, which seats 70, to its best advantage. There’s a separate line for takeout orders (though Maniatis says most people prefer to take a break from the office), and traffic flow doesn’t impinge on seating, which ranges from big communal tables to smaller, more private ones. The separate “Ivy Room” is paneled with remnants from old Yale Bowl benches, complete with numbered backs—a fun place for university get-togethers. In warm weather, two double-wide doors are open to the street. Chalkboard menus, ceiling fans and a cheerful yellow and red color scheme “softened up all the edges,” Maniatis says. The newer location has had another benefit as well: Zoi’s now has enough business to employ 17 people, up from eight back on Orange Street.

Maniatis left banking to become a restaurateur. “I didn’t know anything, really, about the business other than I learned how to wash dishes when I was younger and wait tables,” he says. He recreated some family recipes—his mother will say he “bastardized” them, he admits with a grin—and gave it a shot. “When we first opened, people thought we were a French bistro because they read it zois,” he recalls. “They were coming in, looking at the menu, looking at me…I’m like, ‘It’s American’ … It took a little while for people to get it, but once they got it, it was pretty cool.”

Breakfast is served all day at Zoi’s, and so is the coffee, including a special house blend that’s 80% Guatemalan dark roast, 10% Sumatran and 10% French roast. The lattes come with an extra shot of espresso. As with many things at Zoi’s, Maniatis says, “a little extra makes a big difference.”

Zoi’s
63 Grove St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 7am-3pm, Sat 7:30am-2pm
(203) 777-6736
www.zoisnewhaven.com

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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