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On Sunday, fans of the Crystal restaurant share memories, support as eviction deadline looms

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WATERTOWN — Walking into the Crystal Restaurant on a bright Sunday in late May, it can take some time for one’s eyes to adjust to the dark wood interior — the stamped tin ceiling, the mahogany booths demarcated by coat racks, the tiled floor, the mirrors and the wall sconces — but one immediately senses the density — the density of bodies packed into the iconic landmark for a Mother’s Day brunch, the density of tradition, and now, the density of support for an institution that faces an uncertain future for the first time in its long history.

On Thursday, it was revealed that the owners of the Crystal, Libby S. and Peter J. Dephtereos, were involved in a suddenly very public dispute with their landlord, Ricky E. Frazier, over the terms of a new lease. Eviction was threatened and, on Sunday, a mere four days after the revelation, patrons were quick to offer their memories and their unequivocal support for the restaurant, whose iconic status has been secured in books, movies and countless newspaper and magazine articles, though it’s the personal connection community members have formed with the location that seems to have truly cemented the establishment’s place in north country lore.

In the days following the eviction notice, the Watertown Downtown Business Association created a “Save the Crystal” Facebook page that has accumulated 3,438 likes as of Sunday evening. The news has caused generations of restaurant goers to reevaluate their connection to the Public Square landmark.

“I feel overwhelmed,” Mrs. Dephtereos said. “It makes me feel very proud. It makes you feel confident that, at the end of the day, things are going to be fine. You don’t realize until something like this happens what kind of support you have in the community. The love and support is overwhelming.”

One by one, individuals, couples, groups and families filed into the vestibule, where their steady progress toward the restaurant’s famously affordable food was briefly interrupted as tables were cleared and their fellow diners settled their tabs.

There, momentarily detained by the more mundane aspects of dining out, they shared stories about their affection for the Crystal.

“I used to bring my mother here. She loved it here; it’s never changed,” said Diane L. Strader, Chaumont. “And she came here with her mother when she was young.”

Mrs. Strader came this Sunday with her family. She said it is the original decor and the friendly atmosphere that keeps her coming back.

“It’s like a family. I just love it,” she said. “I hope it doesn’t close; that would be awful. There’s no place like this.”

“Don’t forget the ceiling mom, you love the ceiling,” her daughter, Sara L., teased.

“This is history. It’s passed the test of time; it’d be a tragedy if we lost it,” Mrs. Strader said.

While the Strader family was waiting for their table, JoAnn Reff, Dexter, spoke of the connection that both she and her late husband Otis (Nick) N. Reff Jr., former chief of the Watertown city police force, had to the restaurant.

The Dephtereos family has leased the restaurant’s 1,700 square feet of space for seven decades.

While Mr. Reff would walk the Public Square beat, it was a member of the Dephtereos family who, before bedding down for the night, would have a hot cup of coffee waiting for the freezing cop, according to Mrs. Reff, who still comes to the restaurant at least twice a week.

Joseph P. Girardi, who was seated at a round table in the back of the restaurant with his wife, Kristin M., and their four children, Lauren C., 14; Morgan E., 16; Jillian E., 14, and Joseph J., 8; was at first reluctant to speak about what makes the Crystal so special to him and his family before eventually opening up about the subject.

“It’s iconic; it’s got great food, great atmosphere, great staff. It’d be a shame to lose this place, that’s for sure,” Mr. Girardi said.

And while the connections to the Crystal are deepest here in Watertown, growing up here is not a prerequisite for fondness for the institution.

Walking out of the restaurant after paying his bill, Daniel E. Sturge, a native of Charlotte, N.C., and a former U.S. Marine, said that he would come to the Crystal during visits to family who lived in the area.

“My dad always said it’s like stepping into the 1920s when you walk in,” Mr. Sturge said.

Mr. Sturge recently relocated to Watertown for a job at Stebbins Engineering & Manufacturing Co., 363 Eastern Blvd.

“This is my favorite place in Watertown,” Mr. Sturge said. “It would be a travesty for it to leave this space.”

That’s not going to happen, according to Mrs. Dephtereos.

“We’ll be here today; we’ll be here tomorrow; we’ll be here a year from now,” she said. “We don’t want to go anywhere and we’re not going to.”

In the end, whatever fate awaits the Crystal, it shows no signs of diminishing in its acquisition of new fans; fans that are now the restaurant’s greatest ally in its fight to stay in its 89-year-old home.

“It’s the best restaurant in town,” said 8-year-old Joseph Girardi as he devoured the last of his turkey club.

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