Tommy Mavroudis got a call from his business partner at about 2 a.m. on Nov. 14, 2011. His Rockville Centre eatery, the Pantry Diner, was on fire.
Mavroudis, who managed the diner, which has been in his family since 1949, drove to the scene in disbelief. It was crowded by fire trucks, police cars, reporters and onlookers, he recalled. The place was a mess: The kitchen was charred and water slicked everything.
“It was just shock,” he said. “You think you’re in a dream.”
From the security-camera footage, it appeared that a diner employee had accidentally flipped on a switch for one of the diner’s ovens while cleaning late that night, Mavroudis said. Smoke and flames triggered the fire-suppression system, but it was unable to control the blaze.
Rockville Centre Fire Chief Brian Cook, who was at the scene that night, recalled seeing flames blowing out of the roof. Most of the fire, he added, was in a duct above one of the stoves, and firefighters had to open the roof to extinguish the blaze. There was extensive smoke and water damage, Cook said.
A post on the Pantry’s Facebook page the day afterward mentioned a potential reopening the following month. A July 2012 post said the diner would open again that winter. Later, a message in one of the diner’s windows hinted at a 2014 reopening. But the eatery sat uninhabited on the corner of Long Beach and Merrick roads for nearly six and a half years before its official reopening on Monday.
Getting the building up to code was harder than anticipated, Mavroudis said, and the plan to renovate turned into a vision to create his dream place.
“This is it, pretty much,” he said, looking beyond the booth he sat in at the restaurant on a recent weekday morning. “…It took its time, but we did it right. We didn’t cut any corners. Top to bottom, it’s just immaculate.”
In the late 1940s, Mavroudis’s grandfather was a carpenter who built homes in Long Beach with fellow Greek immigrants. The diner was his coffee stop, and when he learned that it was for sale, he sold his tools and bought it.
“He didn’t know anything about running a restaurant, but they stuck it out,” said Jean Mavroudis, Tommy’s mother.
Jean, who owns the property, said that even while the diner was closed after the fire, she received offers “left and right” from people who wanted to buy it. But Tommy said he could not walk away from the diner he grew up in. He can remember pulling quarters out of the jukebox coin slots at age 3.
As teenagers, he and his sister, who now lives in Chicago, helped out, peeling potatoes, cracking eggs, making milkshakes and assisting the waitresses.
The diner was open for 24 hours until 1973, Jean recalled, and continued to be a gathering place for locals afterward. Some employees stayed there as long as 30 years, she added. “My whole family just loved the business, the interaction, and wanted to serve them well,” Jean said of the community. “It became just a family.”
Jean let her son make the business decisions after the fire, and was excited to finally reopen. “I think it’s absolutely beautiful,” she said of the new diner, which features a bakery and a bar. “I never could have imagined it that way . . . but he had my blessing.”
Even when the diner was ready to re-open earlier this month, however, there were complications. Several hours after its first grand reopening on April 3, it was shut down due to “computer glitches and technical issues.” A few days later, a limited number of guests were invited for complimentary meals to do more equipment and menu testing, during which other issues arose.
Andrew Berman, 42, of Oceanside, who attended the free tasting, said he and his family waited longer than two hours for their food. Upset by the long wait, his 7-year-old daughter began crying hysterically. Apologetic, the staff began bringing out a variety of dishes they hadn’t ordered, Berman said, but they were delicious nonetheless.
“The poke?” he said. “Out of this world. Chicken wings? Really going to give a lot of our local establishments that have some great chicken wings a run for their money.”
Berman is a longtime customer, noting that the Pantry was a great late-night stop after he went out with friends. He called its reopening a “piece of nostalgia,” and added that he likes the more modern look.
“I feel like it’s silly to even call it a diner, at that level, with the quality of food that they have, the menu that they have and the décor that they have,” Berman said.
Jeff Broido, 71, who grew up in Rockville Centre in the 1950s and ’60s, said he remembers his grandparents visiting from Manhattan every Thursday, and he and his brothers begging to go to the Pantry Diner. “We would just beg them in unison,” Broido said. “We’d holler, ‘Pantry Diner! Pantry Diner!’ And he’d take us over there.”
Broido said that his grandfather was crazy about diner food, and he developed a love of it, too — often ordering a cheese omelet or a tuna sandwich. He added that he plans to drive two hours south from upstate Kingston, where he now lives, to give it another try and relive his childhood.
“If it’s the same family operating it,” Broido said, “it’s probably just as good.”
The renovation cost “quite a lot of money,” Tommy Mavroudis noted with a tired smile, not wanting to specify the amount, but he said he ultimately built it for the people. The diner was open from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Monday, and dinner hours were coming soon, as the Herald went to press on Tuesday.
“It’s not just for us. It’s for the community to enjoy, and we’ve had so many good memories here,” Mavroudis said. “. . . I know how great it can be again, and we’ll see what happens.”