In 2003, Monis gave his notice. He and Marler were going to hang out their own shingle with a small restaurant space previously occupied by Roberto Donna and his failed trattoria Vivo!, on the first floor of a cream-colored brick rowhouse near 17th and P streets, Northwest. Tracy counseled him on running a business—and asked him not to steal any of his staff. A few weeks later, Tracy says, two more employees, including an executive sous chef, quit and followed Monis. When I spoke to Tracy, he played down the toll Monis’s departure took on his restaurant. Privately, though, someone close to Tracy told me he was crestfallen and felt he was losing a rare asset.
The setting Monis chose for his next act was inauspicious for an ambitious new eatery. Save for the highly regarded Sushi Taro next door and a serviceable steakhouse down the block, the stretch of 17th Street where Monis planted his flag was a culinary desert, dominated by cheap diners, dive bars, and an understocked grocery store that neighbors dubbed “the Soviet Safeway.”
Komi was, and still is, a small, spartan space. “It has all the personality of a Presbyterian meeting room. A dimly lit one,” Tim Carman wrote in the Washington City Paper. But it had two dozen more seats when it opened than it does now and no entrée cost more than $19. A full dinner with wine, tax, and tip came to about $60 a person.
Unlike today, diners could choose dishes from a printed menu. Salads composed of peekytoe crab, pink grapefruit, and diced avocado as well as squash soup with a handmade marshmallow floating in the center were early standouts. So was fish, notably walleye and Arctic char with skin so crisp the Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema compared it to a potato chip.
The menu was adventurous but approachable. Monis served Greek-inspired sandwiches stuffed with shaved lamb, arugula, and cucumber. Roberto Donna, the previous tenant, had installed a wood-burning oven, so Monis served pizzas, but topped with ingredients like squash or bluefin tuna. One summer, when the scorching oven raised the temperature in an upstairs apartment, forcing the tenant to run his air conditioner ceaselessly, Monis paid the man’s electric bill.
Monis’s food adhered closely to his roots. He was born Ioanis Monis, the son of Greek immigrants who own a beloved sandwich and pizza shop called La Casa in a strip mall off Duke Street in Alexandria. Monis recalls standing on a milk crate in the kitchen so he could reach the sink while washing dishes. This is one of the few biographical details he has divulged, and it has circulated widely among food writers, as has the story about a seven-year-old Johnny asking his grandmother if she wanted breakfast and then going to the stove to cook eggs in olive oil.
When he was 17, Monis ran La Casa by himself for two weeks while his parents went for their annual summer vacation to the Greek island of Chios, where they’d been born and where they’d taken Johnny as a child. He remembers his grandmother greeting them at her home with a pot of rabbit stew with pearl onions—his favorite childhood dish—and gathering vegetables and eggs with his grandfather.
Chios—or more precisely, a taverna-lined beach on Chios called Komi—is Monis’s inspiration. His restaurant is meant to emulate the combination of impeccably fresh food served in a relaxed atmosphere. In that regard, Komi on 17th Street felt immediately out of step with workaday Washington—lunch service, for instance, took more than an hour. But Monis seemed happy. And the critics noticed.
“In a very short time Monis and company have raised dining standards on their block by more than a few notches,” the Post’s Sietsema wrote. “Komi is a serious restaurant that displays a playful side.”
Not long after he opened Komi, Monis told reviewers, “I’d like to be known for a comfortable little restaurant,” the kind of place “we’d like people to be able to come once or twice a week rather than once or twice a month.”
But what he did next deviated entirely from that ambition.
In the winter of 2006, Monis closed Komi. He cut the number of tables by more than half and remodeled the space with some volunteer labor from his parents, who helped cart out the old wood-fired oven. When the restaurant reopened two weeks later, it was transformed. Monis eliminated the à la carte menu and offered only a prix fixe meal. And he raised the cost of dinner to $84 a person.
“In roulette terms, this was akin to pushing the entire pile of chips onto a single number,” wrote The Washingtonian’s Todd Kliman. “A restaurant that only three years earlier had offered wood-oven pizzas was now demanding consideration as a culinary destination and inviting comparison to such big-time restaurants as Citronelle and CityZen.”
A new era was ascendant in fine dining, that of the expensive, chef’s-choice tasting menu, which turned attention away from the patron and toward the chef, who was seen more and more as an artist. Restaurants became like galleries, and eventually like theaters. People came not just for the food but for the show.
Komi is now open just five days a week for dinner only. Monis offers employees health insurance and vacation, a rare act of generosity in a restaurant. Once, during a summer break, he paid part of the wages of a line cook who was on vacation but was stretched too thin to go without pay. And the independently owned restaurant has granted Monis the lifestyle of someone who can actually afford to eat there. In April, he and his wife closed on a $1.3-million rowhouse on a tree-lined stretch of Q Street, three blocks from the restaurant.
As his acclaim grew, Monis won awards and granted some interviews. But he insisted he wasn’t paying attention to the buzz. “It’s never been about that,” he said in a brief 2005 interview. “It’s always been about creating a place with soul . . . the restaurant that I would want to eat in.”
One morning in 2008, not long before Christmas, Monis called with an urgent message for his staff. “He said to have everyone in the dining room in 20 minutes and that he was on his way in,” Jeremiah del Sol, his former line cook, recalls. “We didn’t know what the hell was going on.”
Monis stood before his confused staff holding up a copy of The Washingtonian’s 100 Very Best Restaurants issue, which had just been published. “We’re number three!” he exclaimed.
The room erupted in cheers. A year earlier, the magazine had ranked Komi number ten. Monis had leaped ahead of some of the region’s most revered establishments, including the Inn at Little Washington and José Andrés’s Minibar, a six-seat restaurant that served a 27-course tasting menu.
After the cooks and servers caught their breath, the sous chef said to Monis, “Next time can you just tell us what happened? Because we thought you were closing the restaurant.”
A year later, Komi was ranked number one, displacing Michel Richard’s Citronelle. Komi has remained in the top slot ever since.