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Decades later, Crystal Restaurant still sparkling in Watertown

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It was as if the man who had left a cold Public Square for the dimly lit Crystal Restaurant was coming home.

The door to Watertown’s oldest restaurant gave a pesky squeak as the man opened it on a recent December morning. The man, a senior citizen wearing a heavy coat, shuffled past the dry Tom and Jerry bowl at the stand-up bar and sat at one of the mahogany booths in the rear of the restaurant, near the oversized, wood-framed clock on the wall.

The sounds of Christmas carols came from a radio somewhere in the eatery, but faintly, as if the music were reluctant to intrude upon the scene.

Amy Horton, the morning waitress, came through the swinging doors of the kitchen with a smile as warm as a sunrise. She obviously was used to the man’s routine. After an obligatory “Good morning,” few words were needed.

“French toast?” Mrs. Horton asked.

“French toast,” the man said.

And so began another day at the Crystal, like so many previous days, beginning when the restaurant opened in 1925.

FAMILY TIES

A year has passed since a new owner, Ricky E. Frazier, bought the building that houses the Crystal.

Mr. Frazier, a Watertown resident who owns several properties in the city, purchased 85-87 Public Square Properties LLC last year for $125,000 from a Long Island-based corporation partly because of the historic nature of the Crystal, he said.

The building, which also has apartments, comprises two street addresses, with the restaurant at 87 Public Square.

The Crystal is owned by Watertown residents Peter J. and Libby S. Dephtereos.

The Dephtereos family has leased the restaurant’s 1,700 square feet of space for seven decades. Peter J. said no changes are planned that would alter the character of the Crystal, whose patrons are as attached to the restaurant as the iconic mirrors are to the mahogany booths.

The restaurant has always been there for loyal customers; it’s best known for low prices, personal service and vintage furnishings, a place where comfort is served super-sized.

But it’s not only the customers who keep coming back to the Crystal. Peter Dephtereos is the third generation of his family to own it, and many of the eatery’s waitresses have worked there for decades.

“I love it. It’s my home,” said Maryann Bancroft, who this past fall celebrated 50 years of working as a waitress at the Crystal.

Mrs. Bancroft, who recently went to her winter home in Fort Pierce, Fla., said it’s the people who have made it a pleasure to work there for half a century.

“They are family — all of my customers,” Mrs. Bancroft said in a phone conversation from Florida.

A restaurant has been at the Crystal location since 1919; it replaced saloons that had occupied the site since the early 1900s. In 1919, the Belmont Lunch and Restaurant began operating there. It changed hands a few other times until it became the Crystal in 1925, according to that year’s city directory.

The Dephtereos family became associated with the eatery in 1928 when Otto Dephtereos, Peter’s grandfather, was hired as a chef by brothers Dennis and Jerry Valanos. When the Valanos brothers returned to Greece in 1943, Otto’s brother, Nicholas, bought the business. He died in 1953, and Otto passed away in 1981.

Before Peter took over management of the Crystal with Libby, his father, Joseph F., and uncle, Leo Dephtereos, ran it for years. Leo died in 1999, but Joseph, 88, a radio gunner on a B-25 Mitchell bomber based in England in World War II, still shows up for work daily.



‘I LOVE THIS PLACE’

On the night of the Christmas tree lighting in Watertown last month, Jerry K. Peck was eating by himself, enjoying a chicken dish at one of the restaurant’s 12 booths. Mr. Peck was born in Gouverneur and now lives in Syracuse.

During daytime hours, he had some work to do at a house he owns in Watertown. When he’s in the city, he never fails to go to the Crystal.

Mr. Peck, 64, said that when he was a child, he and his mother always stopped in for a meal when she was in Watertown to shop.

“I love this place. I love the owners,” he said.

Peter Dephtereos usually can be found in the kitchen area doing chores, including pitching in to cook.

The restaurant, open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays, has a morning and afternoon cook. Libby Dephtereos works in the front, greeting customers, tending bar and cashing them out.

The reverence placed on the Crystal by its customers isn’t lost on Peter and Libby.

“It makes us honored,” said Mr. Dephtereos, a 1978 graduate of Watertown High School. “This place is like going back in time.”

Mrs. Dephtereos said she enjoys talking with customers and getting to know new ones.

“They say, ‘I met my wife here’ or, ‘I came here on my first date,’” Mrs. Dephtereos said. “You hear all sorts of stories like that. And it’s nice when people who have moved away come back and say, ‘It’s so nice you haven’t changed a thing.’ It brings back a lot of memories for people when they come back.”

From the well-worn table tops in the booths to the tin ceiling, the couple said they’re comfortable with keeping the Crystal the way it is.

“We’ve never really felt pressure to modernize as far as the look of the inside goes,” Mr. Dephtereos said. “I think if we did, we’d hear a lot about that.”

The place has held up exceptionally well, the couple said. Mr. Dephtereos said that as far as he knows, the black and white tile floor, with thousands of individual tiles about a half-inch square, is original. He said the same can be said of the booths, their mirrors and their individual lights. Each booth is accented by a brass, three-pronged coat hook.

One of the Crystal’s most intriguing items is a pay phone on the wall across from the stand-up bar; behind the bar is a working cash register from at least the 1930s that rings up tabs. Overlooking the bar, on a high shelf, are two watchful “Old Crows” — often mistaken for penguins — that were given away years ago as a promotion for Old Crow whiskey.

On top of the cash register is a model ship made out of wood and containing a clock with brass sails. Its story, like many others throughout the restaurant, has been lost to Mr. Dephtereos.

“I don’t know how it got there and who brought it here, but it’s always been there,” he said.

Such things have stayed the same over the years, which is part of the Crystal’s attraction. But at least one restraurant fixture might be changing. Mr. Frazier said he would like to put in an upstairs bathroom for patrons, adding that he would discuss the idea with the Crystal’s owners.

The current restroom is down a flight of stairs.



LOW PRICES

Besides its character, the Crystal is known for low prices. This reporter paid $5.33 for scrambled eggs, four sausages, two pieces of toast with peanut butter, and several cups of coffee.

Customers have their theories as to how the Dephtereoses can keep prices at a minimum.

“I think it must be very good management,” said regular visitor James L. “Obie” O’Brien of Watertown on the night of the tree lighting.

“It’s low overhead, and also it’s family run,” surmised Dexter resident Douglas A. Spooner, who was dining with his wife, Karen K., and daughter Alison.

Mr. Dephtereos smiled when he heard those theories.

“We certainly don’t have the overhead that other places have,” he said. “We’ve always had a philosophy of offering a good product at a fair price.”

Mr. and Mrs. Dephtereos said the restaurant business has seen more competition in recent years, with fast-food spots spilling into the city like french fries from a value meal.

“There are certainly more choices for people now than there used to be,” Mr. Dephtereos said. “But as I say, if you continue to provide quality food and good service, you should be all right.”

They plan to continue that formula for the foreseeable future.

“We’re not going anywhere,” Mr. Dephtereos said.

“We’re not leaving,” his wife added.

But the third generation of the Dephtereos family could be the last at the Crystal.

Peter and Libby have three children — a college senior studying creative writing in Georgia and a 16-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son at home — but Mr. Dephtereos said he doubts any of his children will follow in his footsteps at the Crystal.

“I can’t say that with any certainty, but I’m going to say probably not,” he said.

But Mr. Dephtereos said he and his wife plan on several more decades of ownership.

That’s welcome news for customers such as Mr. Peck.

“Everything is the same as when I came here as a kid,” he said.

To prove his point, he turned around from his dinner, looked up and mentioned the wood-framed clock that watches over the place, reassured that it was still there, and perhaps hoping its hands will continue to reflect a time when the past never catches up with the present.



THE CRYSTAL AT A GLANCE
n The restaurant is located at 87 Public Square and is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
• The Crystal is the oldest restaurant in Watertown, opening in 1925. A restaurant has been at the Crystal’s location since 1919.
• The building that houses the Crystal was built in the 1850s after a series of Public Square fires. In the early 1900s, the building was known as the Standard Block. In 1907, it was renamed the Devine Block, after Michael Devine, who renovated the building and put in a bar, the masonry tile floor and booths, which remain to this day.
• During the holidays, the Crystal is known for its Tom and Jerry cocktails. The drink batter is served from a black bowl on the bar. Before the restaurant acquired the bowl in the 1940s, it was used at the old Hotel Woodruff on Public Square. Crystal co-owner Libby S. Dephtereos said the red and white mugs that Tom and Jerrys are served in are as well known as the bowl, but the mugs occasionally shatter. Customers regularly find new ones at garage sales and thrift stores and donate them to the restaurant.
• The most popular food for Crystal customers is turkey. During the summer, when turkey sandwiches are most popular, restaurant chefs cook two or three turkeys a day.
• The restaurant’s pay phone doesn’t actually function as a pay phone. Phone company workers told the Crystal’s owners recently they could keep it as a pay phone, but they would have to pay a fee, so the owners decided to just use it as a second business phone.
• The Crystal has about a dozen employees, most of whom are part time.
• The daily specials are corned beef and cabbage on Tuesdays, meatloaf on Wednesdays, beef barbecue on Thursdays, fish fry and macaroni and cheese on Fridays, and various dishes on Saturdays and Sundays.
nThe restaurant has never had to replace any mirrors in the booths, which are wooden and are made of mahogany, as are the benches and tables.
• The restaurant is on the Traditional Arts in Upstate New York’s Register of Very Special Places.
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