Two years ago, a fast-moving fire ripped through the Athens restaurant on East Main Street in Riverhead, laying waste to a favorite downtown eatery and the years-long efforts of its devastated owner, John Mantzopoulos.
The restaurant that will open next week in its place is vastly different from the one that burned down in June 2013. Gone are the white tablecloths and the ornate decorations, the carpeted floors and gothic ambiance. In their place, a cheerful, trendy-looking Mediterranean eatery has emerged, shedding the numerous constraints that have long postponed its opening with a brand new name:
“The old name died with the fire that night,” Mantzopoulos said, sitting at one of the restaurant’s new tables alongside the bar. “I wanted to do something new.”
With a new name has come a new concept, shaped during the two years Mantzopoulos struggled to get the doors of his restaurant back open. Gutting out most of his building’s fire-ravaged interior gave Mantzopoulos the chance to redefine the restaurant that would rise from its ashes.
Mazi has cast aside the formal ambiance of its predecessor, instead embracing a stylish, urban feel. Behind the ultra-glossy wooden bar runs an exposed, whitewashed brick wall. Funky metallic lights hang above the bar, which spans the length of the restaurant to the open kitchen. Black-and-white prints of vintage Manhattan hang in frames on the walls. Leather-backed chairs and bar seats still give the restaurant the air of class and comfort reminiscent of the Athens Grill.
“It’s got an urban, groovy look to it,” Mantzopoulos said, his voice colored with his slight Greek accent. “When we laid out the restaurant, I wanted it to be wide open. You look through the storefront, and it doesn’t hide from you.”
Mazi will cater to a more casual crowd, and this is evident in its new menu. Mazi will serve three different kinds of gyros, where its more formal predecessor served none. Its lunch items will be available through the dinner hours. A mix-and-match meal option, styled after Panera Bread’s “You Pick Two” specials, will allow customers to choose half a sandwich or panini and a cup or soup or salad.
“As much as you would spend to go to Panera, you would spend here,” Mantzopoulos said. “It’s affordable.”
After the fire, Mantzopoulos had some time to reconsider the choices he made running Athens. “I would go out and eat in different restaurants as a customer,” he said, “and I realized – holy crap, how are people supposed to eat five pounds of Greek salad with half a pound of chicken on it? By toning it down, we’ll make it more accessible for people.”
He has also styled the restaurant as Mediterranean, rather than exclusively Greek. He will be bringing all his popular dishes back to the new restaurant, but by expanding his horizons beyond solely Greek fare, he has a little more flexibility with what he can serve.
“One week, we can do a great moussaka,” Mantzopoulos said. “The next, we can do a really good lasagna. The week after that, we can do a tiki chicken with curry sauce.”
A more accessible menu, however, doesn’t mean that Mantzopoulos will be skimping on the fresh, high-quality ingredients his patrons know him for.
“We are still trying to keep everything as fresh and local as possible,” he said. “But I’m going to try to give the people what they want, when they want, and how they want it.
“When you’ve got a business up and running,” he added, “you never have the time off to say, ‘Maybe we should be doing this differently.’ It’s difficult to overhaul an existing restaurant. But the fire totally wiped us out. We had a chance to say, ‘Let’s do this instead.’”
Sudden, utter devastation
It was the last weekend of June. Athens had been exceptionally busy that Friday night. Mantzopoulos and his staff were gearing up for a lucrative summer.
Around 8:30 p.m., smoke began pouring through the vents of the restaurant into Athens’ main dining room.
“Then a waitress comes running out and says, ‘Get out. It’s a fire,’” Ray Pickersgill, who was dining at the restaurant that night, said in an interview shortly after the incident.
The fire began in the kitchen, went through a vent and spread to the roof. Mantzopoulos tried in vain to put it out before he was forced to evacuate the building with his staff and customers.
It took seven fire departments more than an hour to quell the blaze. When the flames were finally put out, more than 90 percent of the Athens Grill’s interior had been destroyed.
The weeks following would bring challenges unlike anything Mantzopoulos had ever faced. As the busiest season of the year rolled along, he was cleaning out rotting meat and fish that had been festering in a record-breaking heat wave in the charred remains of his restaurant. In a case of the worst possible timing, his insurance company, which he was depending upon in order to start repairing the damage from the fire, suddenly plunged into a state of financial turmoil that wouldn’t resolve until the following year, when it was absorbed into another company.
It wasn’t until May 2014, almost an entire year after the fire, that Mantzopoulos began receiving insurance payments.
“The restaurant was just sitting here,” he said. “There was nothing you could do. Just to get a guy in here to start ripping up the roof, you needed $40,000.”
But he was able to stay afloat with help from his friends. After the fire, the Riverhead community came together in a series of fundraisers to help support Mantzopoulos and his three children, who were now all relying upon the income of Mantzopoulos’ wife Christine, a registered nurse.
“If there was one thing the fire showed me overall, it was that I have some friends around here,” he said. “You can be as wealthy as Donald Trump one day, and the next you can be just as poor as the guy outside of Trump’s building looking for change. But when you lose that wealth, the only thing that matters is the people you have around you.”
When Mantzopoulos finally reopens his restaurant next week, it will be under a new name that reflects this sentiment – a name that, in Greek, means “together.”
“After the first fundraiser, I was sitting at the dining room table with my wife,” he said. “Speaking in Greek, I said to her that it was so nice that all these people came together for us.”
When he spoke the word ‘mazi,’ something clicked in Mantzopoulos’ head. Even as he recounted the story for this article, he grabbed a pen and wrote the name down, just as he did at his dining room table two years ago.
“’Mazi’ means together,” Mantzaplous said, holding up the paper. “This was a project that was helped by the definition of togetherness. By the people in the community, the people who helped me, my friends in the neighborhood – Mazi is here today because they all came together.”