In resurrecting Fisherman's Wharf, longtime restaurateur Niki Chalkias captures dining service the way it should be

Story by Beth Stallings l Photos by Alysia burton

Niki Chalkias looks disgusted as a young waiter greets his table with a friendly, "Hey, folks."

"What is this 'folks'?" asks the 69-year-old owner of Fisherman's Wharf through a Greek accent so heavy it's clear English isn't his first language. It's charmingly authentic, yet intimidating when laced with fervor.

"Their names are ladies and gentlemen. Good evening, madam. Good evening, sir. I want to hear nothing else."

Each sentence is dotted with a finality that makes it law. Know Niki Chalkias for more than 30 seconds and you'll understand this passion; why something seemingly as simple as a salutation is enough to upset the veteran restaurateur, who's opened and closed a handful of eateries in Columbus.

Call him demanding. A perfectionist. Tough loving. His family, friends and employees all do.

With Chalkias, every detail matters. It's the details that create the personal experience that brings diners back to this third, more casual incarnation of Fisherman's Wharf at Polaris, opened in 2010.

Just like the previous locations--the original Columbus spot on Morse Road, which opened in 1976, and then in Bexley until 2005--you aren't walking into a restaurant. You're entering Chalkias' 200-seat family dining room. People aren't customers. They are guests. And Chalkias--or Capt. Niki, as he's been known for three decades--is your gracious host.

It's not Old-World service, Chalkias insists. It's the only way service should be.

The native of Rhodes island, Greece, says he was brainwashed into this belief during his five years at a Swiss culinary school. French instructors there taught him two lessons he still carries with him: First, there is only No. 1 in this industry. To succeed, you must have the best skills and buy the best products.

Second, Chalkias' culinary school mentor told Niki it didn't matter if he owned the finest restaurant with gold plates and crystal glasses. "If the first bite is no good," he said, "everything you have is nothing."

These lessons are the reason Chalkias was one of the first Columbus chefs to insist on sourcing authentic extra-virgin olive oils and fresh herbs to season his Mediterranean-style seafood with a Greek accent. He was part of a small group of culinary minds, the likes of which included Kent Rigsby running Lindey's at the time, who brought this standard here in the 1970s--long before it would become the norm.

"He had a big impact," said Yanni's Greek Grill owner Ioannis Minatsis, who worked for Chalkias for 17 years. "He was a role model. Other people [both Greek and in fine dining] saw how successful he was and started to follow."

Niki helped Minatsis open his own Greek restaurant on Cleveland Avenue. He offered advice to dozens more chefs. He's employed more than 60 relatives at his restaurants, including his children, John and Maria. His children are now partners at his other eateries, Big Fat Greek Kuzina and Feta Greek Kuzina. Opened in 2005 and 2007, respectively, the two offer traditional Greek cuisine.

More than anything, this is a family business.

"I like to say I went from the birth canal right to the dish tank," jokes Maria Chalkias, who, like her brother, has been working at the restaurants her whole life. Outside the kitchen, the children carry on their father's hospitality. If Niki isn't checking on your table after the second bite, it's one of them.

"When somebody walks into your home, which is here, you have to make sure they love everything," Maria said. "When people come into your home, you treat them like family."

In the kitchen, Niki's wife Gina, a trained Greek chef with a focus in pastry, crafts all of the desserts. Maria designs the cocktails. Recipes are first tested in a second kitchen that was installed in the basement of Chalkias' home for this very purpose. The whole family tinkers with dishes there--going through roughly a dozen versions of each recipe before it's taken to the restaurant, where chefs tweak a little more.

"We work differently because we are a family," Niki said. "We cook with our hearts and nothing else."

A love for what he does has never been a problem. Chalkias knew at the age of 12 that restaurants were where he wanted to be. He grew up surrounded by food. His father ran a grocery; his mother, a brilliant cook, taught him to blend spices. One of seven children, he grew up on a small farm overlooking the water in Greece.

Caught in the spell of the kitchen, he would brag, "I'm going to be a big chef someday."

Passion still rolls off Chalkias like steam off a hot plate. He holds his thick hands to the breast of his black chef coat. He taps his chest, then points out to plates, gestures to the walls of the restaurant, decorated in a stressed brown that conjures the feel of a sunken ship.

"Our food is the finest in the world," he said. "We make everything different than everybody else. Our cooking is personal. It comes from the heart."

It's not jargon. Niki means every word he says. He pounds on the table, giving even the glasses a start, as he says, "We only buy the best." That means lobster tails from Australia. Langoustines from South America.

"Anything in life, when you're doing it with meaning and passion it's going to be better," his daughter Maria said, explaining what makes their seafood different. "My dad cooks with his heart. That's the main ingredient missing when people cook. You have to have a love for food."

Sitting in the side room of the restaurant, Niki is sought out by a couple on their way out--the man is a frequent diner at Fisherman's Wharf; the woman a first-timer. They compliment the day's special. She tells him what a hidden gem he has here among the sea of chain restaurants surrounding a shopping mall. They say they will be back again and hug Niki like they're old friends.

Taking a seat at the head of a table, Niki folds his hands on his chest and sighs with a quiet, "That's nice." He looks up and says a little louder, "That is what I want. When they leave, I want them to have a smile on their face."

No Stopping

Niki Chalkias attempted retirement only once--closing the Morse Road Fisherman's Wharf in 1991, when he reached his mid-50s. He thought retirement was expected at that age, so he closed up and moved back to Greece.

His hiatus lasted only two years. He was soon back and opening more restaurants in Columbus with his family. But this newest location of Fisherman's Wharf is his last stop, he insists. This is where he started, and this is where he'll end.

"He's been trying to retire for 20 years," joked his son, John. "Then what happens? He opens up another restaurant. His love and passion won't let him retire."

Good notes

The only thing that could have lured Niki Chalkias out of the kitchen is singing. The restaurateur put himself through culinary school working both in kitchens and singing at local nightclubs.

He sang in Bermuda while working as a hotel chef, appearing in lineups in the late 1960s with the likes of Tom Jones. During the '70s and '80s he released two albums under a small Greek label.

"He has a beautiful voice," said his son John. "He's a tenor with a Greek R&B style."

Now, Niki sings to relieve stress, taking long drives with the windows down, belting Greek tunes.