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Competitors help after Riverhead's Athens Grill is destroyed by fire

John Mantzopoulos, owner and chef of the Athens

John Mantzopoulos, owner and chef of the Athens Grill in Riverhead, stands what was the hot station of the kitchen, where the fire first erupted. Credit: Randee Daddona

The Athens Grill in downtown Riverhead was destroyed by a fire last month, and on a damp day one can still smell the smoke and charred wood while walking past the building on East Main Street.

What cannot be seen, smelled or touched are the efforts by other business owners -- the once-busy restaurant's competitors -- to try to help owner John Mantzopoulos rebuild the eatery and his life.

"I'm amazed and surprised by the support I've gotten," said Mantzopoulos, who will be working for the next six months or so in a small trailer behind his gutted restaurant.

Other restaurant owners sometimes stop by and bring him lunch, and a few weeks ago, Dennis McDermott, who owns the Riverhead Project restaurant a few blocks away, started a "Rebuild Athens" drive, setting up an 8-foot-long table in his restaurant and inviting all the other restaurants to bring something to the party.

On Saturday, the Suffolk Theater across the street from the burned-out eatery will hold another fundraiser with Mantzopoulos, 45, as guest chef in the theater's kitchen. Tickets are $20, with all profits going to rebuilding the restaurant, whose losses could easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

At the previous fundraiser, McDermott said, "120 people showed up. We just put a silver bucket on the bar for donations."

The Riverhead town board voted earlier this month to waive hundreds of dollars in fees for building permits, electrical inspections and fire prevention inspections for the Athens Grill and for The Elbow Room, another restaurant on East Main Street damaged by an unrelated grease fire around the same time.

The 50-seat Athens Grill, which Mantzopoulos bought in 2004, is more than 30 years old.

While he has clearly lost the busy summer season, Mantzopoulos is optimistic about the future, saying downtown Riverhead needs more mom-and-pop stores and places like the Athens Grill, where regular customers keep coming back like an extended family.

When the restaurant is finally reopened, he said, he will host a big "thank you" to the people who helped him.

"We'll open the doors and bring people in. . . . I have a list of all the firemen who came here. They're going to get a steak dinner."

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