The wooden bar runs nearly the entire length of the restaurant. An exposed brick wall, adorned with black iron sconces, overlooks the bar, while large wooden shelves hold glasses and bottles.
All that iron, brick and wood creates an industrial, hard look. That’s no accident.
“It represents strength,” said John Mantzopoulos, who’s ready to open his re-incarnated restaurant, Mazi, in Riverhead this coming Tuesday. “We wanted to come back strong. The fire affected me, but it didn’t affect me where it put me out.”
Its been more then two years since Athens Grill was destroyed by a kitchen fire in 2013. Despite the support of the community, which held several fund raisers to help Mantzopoulos rebuild, it would be some time before he reopened.
“We had to wait for the insurance”, Mantzopoulos explained. “We assumed they would come out here, cut us a check and away we go. That was far from the truth. We got an initial payment — with which we had to gut the place because it was a total mess — but the large bulk of it did not come until a year later.”
Mantzopoulos said there were other delays along the way.
“During the winter when we turned on the gas service and heat, we found out we had to change all the gas pipes, the gas manifolds and the meter,” Mantzopoulos said. “Five thousand dollars later, it was not covered by insurance so it was an adventure, to say the least.”
During that down time, Mantzopoulos had a chance to think about what had been right and wrong with Athens Grill.
“We kind of alienated some of our original clientele with the old place,” he said. “There were a lot of times we couldn’t provide take-out because even though the restaurant was big, the kitchen was small. A lot of people didn’t see that because it was a closed kitchen.”
Mantzopoulos also ate out more as a customer, getting a taste of current food prices. “I had that time off to realize you can see people three times a week at a more affordable bracket then serve the kind of dinner where they like you, but they can’t afford you on a weekly basis. All the things are toned down because I’d rather see people three times a week then once a month.”
The closed kitchen is gone, as the new kitchen is an open part of the restaurant. Customers can now watch the staff cook their meal.
Formal tables have been replaced with smaller two-person tables with soft brown leather seats. Larger tables are in the back, while a back deck will offer outdoor dining next summer. But with only 28 table seats, the restaurant’s seating has been cut by more then a half.
“I wanted to stay small and also gain a rental,” said Mantzopoulos. Half of the space of the old Athens Grill is now rented to a cellphone store next door.
“I’m just being a lot more conservative now,” he said. “I think you’ve got to go with the times and the economy hasn’t really changed. I’m going to expedite my kitchen. I’ll be there for lunch and I’ll cook dinner. I want to take a little break, don’t get me wrong, it’s not the work, I can still go on the line and cook, but it’s different when you have to cook, as well as micro-manage, pay the bills, do this, do that.”
When it comes to the food, many of the Greek dishes are gone. Mazi will concentrate on a more Mediterranean menu, like Italian pasta dishes, a Marsala dish, and veal chop.
Mantzopoulos has nothing but praise for the community who raised money to help him rebuild.
“The community was great,” he said. “It’s something that will always bring a tear to my eyes.
We’re all neighbors as merchants here, my customers have become friends, friends have become customers,” he added. “Mazi in Greek means ‘Together’. I came up with the name after the fundraisers.”
“We all work together here,” said Ray Pickersgill, President of the Business Improvement District Management Association. “We were all pushing for John to get open as fast as he could, it’ll be great to have him back.”
To continue the theme of rising from the literal ashes, Mr. Mantzopoulos bought a copper phoenix emblem and had it embedded into the new bar.
Also built into the bar are several wooden boards from the old Athens Grill.
“We have little meanings here,” Mantzopoulos explained, as he pointed to some beads behind the bar. “My daughter was in Athens recently and she brought me Greek worry beads because she knows I worry.”
Mantzopoulos then pulled a key out of a slit in the brick wall. “This is the original key from 2004,” he said. “It’s a little superstition thing, it’s like when you buy your first house. The locks may change, but you always keep your original key.”