After a nearly year-long closure, beloved Upper West Side Greek spot Kefi finally reopened last week, much to the relief of its many fans. We caught up with head chef and owner Michael Psilakis to find out how the newly-renovated space is faring, what new stuff to expect and how it feels to be back in the neighborhood after such a long, frustrating absence. All hail the mezze plate.

How has Kefi been doing since it opened?

You know when you open a restaurant and the neighborhood really latches on to it? Kefi is just one of those restaurants. It’s been amazing to hear and read the comments of people coming back to the restaurant after almost a year, saying how happy they are that we’re open again. A lot of them didn’t think it would be reopening. From a restaurant owner and a chef’s perspective, it’s just nice to hear that people were thankful that we were back open again.

Gothamist co-founder Jen Chung went Saturday night and she said it was packed. How do you guys handle the rush? Unfortunately, since we’d been closed as long as we had, we’ve lost pretty much all the labor we had trained from when we had the restaurant open. It really was just starting from grassroots again. We’ve been fortunate that a few of the key players we were able to maintain their employment in other restaurants that I own, so they’re happily back again, home. I think that’s what they look at it as. But we still haven’t really opened full force, in truth.

I’ve been to Kefi a few times before it had to close down. Is it pretty much the same set up? The set up is exactly the same. [But] it looks very different. The bar area is really much—I’m going to say it’s like a cleaner area, the lines are very streamlined and straight. That first floor is very, I would say, modern-looking restaurant. It’s all blue and white, with a lot of mosaic tiles on the wall. It reminds you of a Greek restaurant when you walk in, kind of that island feel. When you go downstairs, it changes drastically from the island to, like, a village. The color palettes are orangey, and brown, and reds; it’s very very warm downstairs. It feels like home.

How many staff members did you end up retaining from the old Kefi? From a management perspective, we kept a lot of them. The chef is still the chef from Kefi, he’s also my partner here. The GM who’s become the Director of Operations for my group is also back as a General Manager. Our Banquet Manager is still the same. Our AGM is still the same. On the corporate level we have a lot of the same people. In the kitchen we have three main people that are the same, everybody else is different. And on the floor where servers are concerned, there’s only maybe two or three people that came back from the original staff.

How come the renovation took so long? We ran into DOB (Department of Buildings) issues, we ran into insurance issues. There were some legal issues also. That trilogy of things sort of delayed everything. Initially we had a hope that we were going to be able to open just the first floor, but we ran into some issues with DOB because our bathrooms are in the basement and the basement floor was completely destroyed, there was six or seven feet of water downstairs. Everything had to be redone completely—electric, plumbing, everything was just completely destroyed. When we didn’t have the use of the bathrooms downstairs, we weren’t able to use the upstairs either because you couldn’t fit into building code.

That began a process of insurance and legal and other DOB issues that we had, which just kept pushing the opening. Ultimately, we’re back again, and excited to be here. I think we were able to take the opportunity of the loss and say, let’s look at the restaurant and think about the things that we did wrong the first time as far as the design is concerned, and as far as the flow of service is concerned and fix them. I’s a better restaurant, flow-wise, than it was before.

I hope people embrace it the way they did the first time around. It still has a really cool, fun vibe that Kefi had. And that was, I think, my biggest hurdle in renovation. You don’t want to change it, necessarily, we loved Kefi the way it was. We didn’t want to change the feel of what Kefi was, we wanted to take the things that were negative and making them into a positive, and also sort of maintain the thing that really, I think, attracted people to Kefi from when we first opened, which was that it’s just a really fun, casual place to come and eat, and get food at really reasonable prices.

It was always fun. It was always packed. A young crowd. It’s somewhat noisy, we tried to cure some of that because that was one of our complaints. Especially downstairs, we decided to put full acoustical tiles all around it. That’s one of the examples. This time around we have a beautiful mosaic tile that goes up four feet to keep everything clean and streamlined and constantly look fresh and new. And in the bathrooms we went floor-to-ceiling with the tile to do the same thing. It’s those things that I think will make the restaurant better. We put a new sound system in also, just to make sure that were able to play the music we wanted to play and really create the mode.

New lounge. (Via Facebook)

Financially, how are you able to handle a renovation of that scale without still being able to run the restaurant? Did you take a pretty big hit?
It’s been a tough go, I’m not gonna lie. I had a tough year this year because Sandy also took two other of my restaurants out. And to have Kefi close for almost a year, from when it first happened, because the actual pipe burst in January, so it’s been almost a full year of being closed. We were able to get some money from insurance for Kefi, thankfully, which we weren’t able to do for the storm, unfortunately. That helped. We all, as owners and investors, had to contribute our share to make up the variance. It’s been a really good restaurant for us since we’ve opened it and we feel it’s going to be a great restaurant as well. tough year for Kefi. We’re just happy to be open again, honestly. It just feels good to be back in the space to serve familiar food. Even to us, it’s like wow, you’re cooking the octopus, you’re cooking the dumplings, you’re cooking the lamb shank again. You know what I mean? It’s been a while since we’ve done these things. It feels good to be back home.

Do you plan to open any more restaurants in the Upper West Side in the future? I know you have Fishtag on 79th street. Right now we’re working on a project in Brooklyn. Definitely. The next step for us. It’s in Williamsburg, it’s on Driggs and North 11th. [Editor's note: It's a beer hall!]

My family lives on the Upper West Side and I know there have been a lot of complaints about too many chain stores, not enough good places—I mean, there are a lot of good places to eat. But, … a lot of good places to eat are closing. Big Nicks, Popover’s... I started my career in New York on the Upper West Side with my first restaurant and I’ve been up here for 12 years, and it’s been really wonderful. The people here, to me, are just super loyal. When they like you, they like you, and when they don’t like you, they tell you that. It’s an honest part of New York. I think it’s New York in general. That’s its claim to fame, that we’re honest. We tell people what we feel and how we feel, filters don’t really exist here in New York.

I think that we’ve been successful because neighborhoods want neighborhood restaurants, and Kefi really is a neighborhood restaurant. It might have partners that are well known and television personalities every once in a while, but I think at the end of the day, it’s really just about coming to a restaurant that’s serving good food at a good value. You can still come to Kefi and eat a meal for under $20 bucks. We’re using ingredients that I’ve been using my whole life, we’re cooking the way that I’ve cooked my whole life. It’s really a tribute to the people that work here everyday, that they’re able to maintain the standard and treat the people in the neighborhood like they’re family. That’s what makes a good neighborhood restaurant, I think. If you sense that, you want to go back.

Look at it like this, I’m sure you’ve experienced the sort of dining situation where you go to a restaurant and the meal is off the hook, but the service just wasn’t there.You just felt neglected or unimportant, for whatever reason you just left thinking “wow, they treated me horribly,” or poorly, even though the food was off the hook, you know, are you going back to that restaurant again? Maybe, maybe not. But if you go a second time and it’s the same feeling, you don’t want to pay to feel like you’re not special or important.

But then you go to another restaurant and the food is good, but they make you feel like a superstar. You walk in and they know your name, they know what you like to drink. You feel like you’re part of a community and family, you want to naturally go back to that food and restaurant. It started out on 79th street and it’s a really small restaurant. I was concerned when we first moved it that we were going to be able to maintain that first level of intimacy in such a large restaurant, we’re over 250 seats. We’re able to do it. It’s amazing that you can keep that sense of comfort and that sense of neighborhood in a restaurant that does as many covers as we do, that feeds as many people as we do. I think it’s the food, too. The food is just simple cooked food. The stuff is not trying to be overcomplicated, we’re not trying to serve in a very formal over-complicated way.

I tell people all the time when they’re like “what’s the Upper West Side like?” I grew up and I still live on Long Island. It’s like a suburb in a metropolis, the Upper West Side. Its people, the dogs and carriages with kids. It’s really a neighborhood, a real family neighborhood. A lot of the kids that worked for me over the years, grew up up here. It’s amazing. There’s one school, I don’t know if you know, Calhoun? There’s so many kids that worked for me over the years and went to that school.

One of my General Managers at Fishtag, Johnny, he’s probably the highest ranking GM that I have right now in the group. He started with me as a Barista at Onera when he was at high school at Calhoun, now he’s a GM. It really feels like family up here, it’s a great place. We’re happy to be here. We’re happy to be back, finally. It took a while but we’re back.

Kefi is located at 505 Columbus Ave between 84th and 85th Street on the Upper West Side (212-873-0200, Follow them on Facebook.