The Crystal Restaurant On Public Square, Since 1925
In the opening of his review of the Crystal Restaurant for the Watertown Daily Times in 2005, Walter E. Siebel wrote, “If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was on the set of a 1920s movie being filmed in downtown Watertown. The overhanging neon sign out front is so old, it’s new again.”
Just two years prior, screenwriter and director David Burton Morris would visit the Crystal Restaurant, an old haunt of Watertown native and author Frederick E. Exley whose novel “A Fan’s Notes” Morris had adapted with hopes of having it produced and starring Matt Damon. Scanning the restaurant’s interior, Morris would tell Times staff writer John Golden, “I wouldn’t change a thing here.”
The reality of both remarks is not much has changed – and that’s part of the Crystal Restaurant’s charm.
The landmark eatery would see its beginning in 1925 when it was known previously as the Index Restaurant and purchased by Christ “Chris” Valanos, who would choose the more familiar Crystal Restaurant as the name for what was then to be a high-class restaurant. As the Watertown Daily Times reported on January 16, 1925—
Mr. Valanos who is proprietor of the Electric Lunch, 120 Franklin Street, offered a prize of $10 in gold to the person suggesting a name for the new restaurant which would be acceptable to him. More than 100 suggestions were offered by people from all parts of northern New York.
Mrs. Rhoda Haws of St. Mary Street suggested The Crystal Restaurant. She offered only the one name, while some of the prize seekers sent in lists of a dozen or more names.
Just to put the era into perspective a bit: Sweet Georgia Brown was one of the top songs of 1925 by Ben Bernie and his Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra; The Great Gatsby would be published and eventually go on to be one of the most popular books of all-time – but only after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s death in 1940 when he had long-believed himself to be a failure; and Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and its “Odessa Steps” scene would grip audiences, becoming one of the most famous scenes of early cinema along with Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush which were both tops at the box office.
In 1928, Mr. Valanos became critically ill with a serious nervous disorder and a tumor on the brain. He would pass away in March of the following year at age 35 after two surgeries were performed in New York City by the best doctors in the country, followed by a stay at the Mayo Brothers Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where he received further treatment. Mr. Valanos would be buried in Brookside Cemetery.
Dennis and Jerry Valanos, brothers to Chris, moved to the United States from Greece, by way of England, in 1915 and ran the business during Chris’s illness and continue on after his death. In what may seem surprising in hindsight concerning the lack of changes over the years, the two brothers actually remodeled the six-year-old restaurant in 1931.
The interior of the Crystal Restaurant would be redecorated, and a new front and window installed. The interior was designed in Jacobean design and built of genuine American Walnut and referred to as “Watertown’s most beautiful restaurant.” A full two-page spread in the Watertown Daily Times would announce its gala opening.
The building itself, known as the Devine Block, would be sold shortly after the remodel by Michael J. Devine. Devine had purchased the building when it was previously known as the Standard Block 23 years prior, opening “The Belvedere Cafe,” where he sold “schooners” of beer for .5¢. Years later, in 1992, Alex T. Duffy would recall the Belvedere as a popular place and how those .5¢ beers would get you free food back in those days in a letter to the editor of the Times.
Devine retired in 1919, just before the start of prohibition but would continue to own the block and eventually lease it to Chris Valanos in 1925.
The Valanos brothers would buy the Van Namee Block at 77 Public Square in 1931, shortly after the Devine Block was sold. Two years later, Jerry Valanos would open the New Commodore Restaurant and its Tea Room at 79 Public Square, focusing on French pastry, light lunches, sodas, and confections. They would also own and operate a third restaurant, the Terminal Cafe at Terminal Place, next to the train station. Meanwhile, the Crystal Restaurant would open its bar for the first time in 1934 after prohibition ended the year before.
In 1942, the Valanos brothers purchased the Devine Block. According to the Times in an earlier article, the Valanos brothers were part-owners with Michael Devine, but it’s unknown if that were incorrect or if they merely purchased the remaining interest from Devine. Nevertheless, the building would finally be fully owned by the restauranteurs seventeen years after the Crystal Restaurant started there. The ownership wouldn’t last long, however.
In May of 1944, The Valanos Brothers would sell the Commodore Restaurant to its longtime manager, William Seferlis, who had held the position since its opening in 1933. This would be followed by the sale of the Crystal Restaurant on August 3, as reported in the Times—
Dennis and Jerry Valanos, brothers, joint owners of The Crystal Restaurant, 85-87 Public Square, and for 23 years restaurant proprietors here, have sold the restaurant business to Nicholas Dephtereos of New York City.
The Valanos brothers have now temporarily retired from the restaurant business. The new owner took possession of the Crystal on Tuesday, when the transaction was consummated. The Valanos brothers, however, still own the three-story block in which the restaurant is located.
The Dephtereos’ involvement with the Crystal Restaurant would begin in 1928, when Otto Dephtereos, like the Valanos brothers, immigrated from Greece in 1912 and became arguably the most important, perhaps unheralded, person working behind the scenes as the restaurant’s chef.
Nicholas would pass away at the age of 61 in March of 1953, having returned to Greece nearly a year before to visit sisters and having been ill for about a year. He would be survived by his brothers Otto and Peter and two sisters, Loucia and Mrs. Yerasimos Tjanetatos, all of Pireus, Greece. Otto and his wife, Mary, would continue to operate the restaurant along with their sons, Joseph and Spero.
Things would continue on steadily at the Crystal Restaurant for many years. In 1969, Otto’s wife, Mary, passed away. Otto, Joe, and Leo, a third son, would continue with the business for some years, with Otto retiring sometime in the 70s before passing away at 87 in 1981.
A year before Otto’s passing, what was referred to as the Crystal Building would be sold from James and Theodora Valanos to John LePanto, owner of LePonto’s Hair Styling School. The second floor would be used for retailing beauty supplies and equipment. The ownership would last six years as they would sell it to Watertown Properties Inc. in 1987.
In early December of 1982, a letter to the editor appeared in the Watertown Daily Times regarding the Crystal and a memorable experience. It read–
Recently I assumed residence in Watertown. Due to the temporary nature of my situation I must eat all my meals out.
At noon on Thanksgiving Day I entered the Crystal Restaurant for some simple nourishment. As I sat down the waitress placed a special holiday menu on the table. Anyone who has ever frequented the Crystal knows that it is not an elegant dining establishment. Rather, it provides wholesome food at reasonable prices. But on this day, there were white tablecloths, cloth napkins and a four-course Thanksgiving dinner, all for the unbelievable price of $4.25.
While paying my bill I commented to the owner on what seemed to me an obvious service to his customers. His only comment was, “It’s a special day.”
In 1999, Leo would pass away at the age of 70. His obituary would read, in part–
Mr. Dephtereos, co-owner of the Crystal Restaurant, died at 5:30 p.m. Friday at the Samaritan Medical Center, where he was admitted after suffering a stroke Monday at his home.
He graduated from Watertown High School in 1946 and from St. Lawrence University, Canton, in 1950, with a bachelor of arts degree in economics. He received a master’s degree in business administration from the Johnson School of Business at Cornell University, Ithaca, in 1954.
Since 1954, he had been involved in the management of the Crystal Restaurant, 87 Public Square. His father (Otto) and his uncle, Nicholas, purchased the restaurant from the Valanos brothers. The Dephtereos family has operated the business ever since.
Shortly after Leo’s passing, a letter to the editor would be written from Anthony Dimarcantonio stating the loss of a good samaritan–
As I sit in my office and look over the city of Watertown, I realize that a pillar of our community is gone. A lot of people will feel the loss of Leo Dephtereos, owner/manager of the Crystal Restaurant.
If you needed a meal, Leo would provide. If times were tough, Leo would help. Leo ran a business that became a second home to most. The staff and family who work there all know the regulars, locals and new faces.
Now with Leo gone, it closes a chapter in Watertown’s history. I hope and pray Leo’s memory will bring out the Samaritan in all of us and with that help to someone in need. You don’t have to adopt all who need it, but in Leo’s memory a helping hand will do. I think he would like that.
With a new century would come new management as Peter, his wife Libby, and brother Joe Dephtereos have taken over management of the Crystal Restaurant as the family enters its 10th decade of involvement with the restaurant. Though little had changed over the years (including the prices), new challenges came in 2014.
In 2014, it appeared the Crystal Restaurant would be forced out of its long-tenured location after Ricky Frazier, who purchased the building the year prior, sought to have a five-year lease signed with his addition to the Dephtereos’s fire insurance. The dispute would result in an outpouring of strong community support, particularly through social media, to “Save the Crystal.”
In May, the Watertown Daily Times would write in its front page article, ‘No Place Like’ The Crystal—
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.
One customer, Daniel E. Sturge of Charlotte, N.C., and a former U.S. Marine, stated he visited the restaurant when he returned to visit family in the area. “My dad always said it’s like stepping into the 1920s when you walk in,” he would tell the Times.
Frazier would eventually end up putting the building up for sale, though his asking price of $750,000 was just a tad bit more than the $125,000 he paid for it two years prior. The building was assessed for $88,500, while the Times would report the owner to be $328,675.01 in debt.
After a few years in limbo, including when the Crystal Restaurant was forced to shut down for a couple of months, the building was removed from Frazier’s bankruptcy when he failed to remain current on his payments. As a result, the property entered into the foreclosure process and in September of 2018, the Dephtereos brothers, Peter and Joseph, were the highest bidders in a public auction with a purchase price of $136,000.
It was only the second time that the Crystal Restaurant and building were owned by the same party, and the Dephtereos, at this point in 2022, have already owned both longer than the Valanos brothers did. Making 2018 even more memorable, the Deptheros were also presented with the
Most recently, the Crystal Restaurant completed a major $25,000 facelift in July 2021 and saw the return of its iconic neon sign that had been absent during the two years it took to complete the work. It may have taken 16 years, but Walter Siebel was right, “The overhanging neon sign out front is so old, it’s new again.”
With that said, Walter’s last lines to his four-fork review from 2005 present not so much food for thought as it does a cherry of truth on top and a perfect bookend to this look back at the Crystal Restaurant: “Making people happy is a way of life at the Crystal. It’s obviously a labor of love for the Dephtereos family. Watertown is lucky to have them.”
Below: a video postcard from TAUNYs Register of Very Special Places/WPBS posted on WPBS-TV’s YouTube page.
What Lies Beneath The Former Lady Liberty’s Ice Cream Store…
During some of the renovation work on Public Square in 2006, workers found a stairwell to an underground building while digging through a half-foot of concrete in front of the Crystal Restaurant.
The building, located below the former Lady Liberty’s Ice Cream, 81 Public Square, was thought to be perhaps more than 150 years old, its two windows and doors sealed with bricks, stone and concrete. Unfortunately, it was filled in with concrete fairly soon afterward and no exploration was conducted.
Dating back to the early 1800s, Public Square was quite uneven with a stream running through it. One side down what would be Court Street today was said to have been 12 to 15 feet higher than the lower end toward State Street. What eventually became known as Public Square was originally known to be used as dumping grounds for refuse and a lot of garbage is suspected to have been used to level the land out which may have explained for an older building located underneath a newer one.