Crestview, Florida—Desi’s Downtown Restaurant is the All-American experience. The food here is something fit for Baptist covered-dish socials.
This is not the tasteless fare that passes for home cooking in modern chain-restaurants. No.
This is real.
This is a place where waitresses call you “sugar.” Where eating ribs requires two hands, where tea is sweet enough to power residential lawn mowers.
The buffet selections are basic. Catfish, creamed corn, turnip greens with hocks. They have turkey neck gravy so good it’ll make you look for your aunt in the kitchen.
The local customers are relaxed. Men wear caps with heavy-equipment brands on the fronts. Women wear jeans and scuffed boots. This place is a bona fide field-trip back to 1945.
Beside me: a white-haired woman. She’s friendly. “This used to be the old Lamar Hotel,” she tells me. And she says the word “hotel” like “hoe-tail.”
She goes on, “We pray no out-of-towners find this restaurant because then everybody’d be here.”
Folks like me.
Her husband adjusts his hearing aids and smiles. He tells me the turkey-neck gravy is particularly good today.
So, I waltz to the food-line.
On my way, I see a group of teenagers in camouflage. They’re talking about something important. Their plates are piled high. None of them hold smartphones.
A young girl walks by them. They recognize her. Two boys stand and remove their hats just to say hello. I hope this practice never dies.
The waitress is back at my table. “More tea, Sugar?” She’s already pouring before I answer. This is a woman who works hard for a living.
“Isn’t their tea great?” asks my new friend with the hearing aids.
It sure is.
But it’s more than tea. It’s the way a woman in a booth hugs a girl and asks how her sick mama is doing. Or how one man tips his waitress twenty bucks.
And it’s my server—wearing her high-school colors. Who says, “Make sure you try the banana pudding. It’s the real thing, Sugar.”
The real thing. That’s getting harder to find in today’s world. Another day brings another greedy corporation to town. They bulldoze childhood baseball diamonds to build Best Buys. Too many pines die to make room for another Target.
People fight. Politics abound. I know a family that split down the middle because of differing votes. And I once saw a man in an Outback Steakhouse get so mad at his waitress he flung a handful of pocket change at her for a tip.
Folks are angry. Common sense is getting less common.
But before you lose hope, I know a place that serves yam casserole, gizzards, and zipper peas. And their tea is sugary enough to remind you of sweeter times. They’re only open for lunch.
If you visit, tip your waitress as though the fate of the human race depended on it.
Because, dammit, it does.
Brian Stubbs - March 13, 2017 3:08 pm
I need to stop reading these at work..people keep wondering why I am crying..but please don’t stop writing them. My aunt went to school with Lewis Grizzard in Moreland, GA and he would love what you write…
LindaD - May 13, 2017 6:05 pm
Nancy - January 11, 2018 3:21 pm
One of my favorite writers who died too soon.
Beckie Johnson - March 13, 2017 3:17 pm
Getting my Mao out right now to find out exactly where this place is. I am hungry and even hungrier for my Mississippi of the 1950s and this place sounds perfect!!!! Fabulous writing!
Amy - May 13, 2017 2:13 pm
Beckie Johnson - March 13, 2017 3:18 pm
Map not Mao!
Thressa - March 13, 2017 3:30 pm
I know that place! I’ve eaten there more than once. Wonderful food!
It was begun by the English family and named for their daughter, who was very young at the time.
Amy - May 13, 2017 2:14 pm
And she still works there
Diane Enloe - March 13, 2017 3:35 pm
I so love your writings! It’s like comfort food….every time!
A Dothan, grey-haired lady died red~
James Godwin - March 13, 2017 3:36 pm
My late wife was from Crestview. She too was one of those “sugar” gals!
Sam Hunneman - March 13, 2017 3:52 pm
Warm smiles on a cold day. … Sugar.
Elizabeth Smith - March 13, 2017 5:32 pm
I look so forward to opening my phone and seeing ” new post”. Your stories are about places I’ve been( how many people know where Port St. Joe and the paper mill can be found?) and the names of people take me back a long way.
Please don’t stop the stories- they keep me young!
Gerald - May 13, 2017 12:51 pm
Or Paxton, or any of a dozen other places you have to be a local Native to know the location, much less appreciate.
B.R. - March 13, 2017 5:49 pm
In the climate we live in today, it is so comforting to read the words you write. Thanks for
Sharing your talent with us.
Bella Michelle - March 13, 2017 7:11 pm
Found you via a dear Alabama friend and so glad I did. Our region produces the best words because we know the art of good story telling is something that isn’t bestowed upon just anyone. Happy Monday!
Michael S. Hickman - March 13, 2017 8:56 pm
You’re right-on here. I have a place next to my lake house that’s literally where they took most of the bait & tackle section of a convenience store and converted it into a restaurant like you describe above. If you don’t want to wait, you’d better get there before 5pm because it will be packed with locals from 25 miles around. In order to turn tables quicker, they don’t serve dessert at the table. You have to pick that up a-la-carte while you pay for your next morning’s red wigglers and beer. By the way, the food is PHENOMENAL. If you happen into this place by accident, you’ll know it by the awesome fried quail appetizers. I’m not going to tell you where it is, or the name though. It’s still a convenience store, by the way, but they shut down the pumps at around 6pm because they need the room for restaurant parking.
Mark G. - March 13, 2017 9:02 pm
There’s a place just like this in Snead, Alabama. Your stories bring back memories from my childhood, Papa’s mules, Granny M’s knittin, Granny G’s cathead biscuits, eatin watermelon straight off the vine beside the patch with Granddaddy G., pullin corn or cuttin firewood with my dad, shellin purplehulls or diggin taters with my momma. I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I started reading your stories. Your stories slow my mind and bring a peace I’d forgotten about. Thank you for sharing your gift and allowing a focused mind to wonder a bit… God Bless!
Gerald - May 13, 2017 12:56 pm
Snead, alabama! There is a Sneads, Florida as well and I thought the only one. If you don’t know where that is it’s just down the road from Two Egg, Fla.
Judy - March 14, 2017 2:08 am
The first time I went south, I couldn’t find unsweetened tea anywhere. So I ask if they had Pop. I was asked if I wanted a Coke? No, I wanted a Diet Pepsi and they had it, but they called all cola drinks, Coke. I never did acquire a taste for grits or greens. But the others with me sure liked their biscuits with with some thing called “red” gravy on top? I like my biscuits with real butter and honey. LOL
Michael Hawke - March 14, 2017 2:11 am
Makes me want to visit. Thank you.
June RouLaine Phillips i - March 14, 2017 5:08 am
this reminds me of a little spot in the middle of nowhere…steaks you can cut with a butter knife..Always service with a smile.
Michael Bishop - March 14, 2017 1:08 pm
In my book, zipper peas rank right up there with rattlesnake beans! Human salvation through culinary legerdemain! Et cetera. Et cetera. Thank you.
Jackie Garvin - March 16, 2017 8:52 pm
Geneva,AL is a tiny little town in southeastern AL. It is the place both my parents were raised. I spent lots of time in Geneva visiting my grandparents who lived in the Cotton Mill Village in a 3 room house with unadorned light bulbs that hung from the ceiling, a kerosene furnace for heat, and an enamel kitchen table. I learned about life, zipper peas, homemade biscuits, Jesus and love in that community of hard working poor people. I’m grateful for the gift of small town Southern life.
Gerald - May 13, 2017 12:59 pm
And if you don’t know where Geneva is it’s just down the road from Black, Ala.
Lori - March 16, 2017 11:39 pm
Sean I just love your musings. You need to come eat at Laney’s in Leeds. The white flour handprints on the backsides of the cooks when they come out of the kitchen says it all. I know you would find tons of fodder for body and blog.
Deep South Painting and Murals
Susie Munz - March 17, 2017 2:52 pm
Great story, Sean. I just got back from visiting my daughter in Costa Rica. What was my favorite thing? The REAL people, like you describe so well…the people who say “How are you?” And really want to know how YOU are, come by to pet your dog before the vet comes to help him cross the rainbow bridge, who bring you fresh vegetables from their garden, or who came to a pot luck to meet your “mama” who is visiting from the States. We are losing kindness, and that is so sad. We need to work on bringing it back. You are helping with that cause! Thank you.
Deanna J - May 13, 2017 12:44 pm
My kind of place!! Yummy! Thanks!
Hoke Thomas - May 13, 2017 12:51 pm
Sounds like home. Try Zack’s in Dothan and Slocumb for a similar experience. Taste Of Lemon in LaGrange, Ga is in a church dating back to the late 1890s. Great food and atmosphere also. These are gems to be enjoyed as is the Crestview restsurant.
Diane - May 15, 2017 11:11 am
LaGrange, GA and Taste of Lemon!!!!! I L.O.V.E. reading your column. Keep them coming…my small town, Auburn, AL., is changing so so fast. Lossung it’s Loveliest VILLAGE On the Plains title.
*Diane - May 15, 2017 11:12 am
E.Huntley - May 13, 2017 1:10 pm
Such wonderful memories of favorite childhood tresturants. Thank you again!
Ladd Goodson - May 13, 2017 2:59 pm
Desi’s one of my favorites. I love everything about it and you just made me hungry. Louise and I thank you for taking the time to visit with us after your show last night. May God continue to bless you and your family.
Lori - May 13, 2017 4:22 pm
There are only two places on the internet that I feel safe reading the comments section. Humans of New York, and Sean of the South.
Mr Dietrich, you’ve done a beautiful job of creating a loving, supportive community here. Your stories have brought in folks from all over who appreciate the gentle, southern spirit of the people and the places that you pay homage to. Thank you.
LindaD - May 13, 2017 6:13 pm
I completely agree with both of your paragraphs!
Ben Smith - May 13, 2017 9:09 pm
Not enough “SUGAR ” places left in this world. Love your stories.
Donna L - May 14, 2017 3:07 am
Crestview is home, and at Deal’s you’ll feel right at home. Real southern down home cooking.
June Roulaine Phillips - May 20, 2017 11:52 am
I love the trips down memory lane…o wait it’s just a trip down the road. Thank you for sharing.
Chicky - January 11, 2018 2:49 pm
Love this column! Charlie B’s in Oneonta, AL is the same kind of place. Only they have a buffet, so you can drown in chicken and dumplings and cornbread, if you’ve a mind to.
Dolly - January 11, 2018 3:00 pm
Wonderful! We once had a small thriving town with a diner such as this. I miss that time and place. People moved away and the town is for the most part dead. Hanging on to memories and I hope these folks you are talking about hang in there forever!
Candace Hicks - January 11, 2018 7:12 pm
I think it would be a GREAT VACATION to just get in my car and go to allllllll the places you have eaten in the South east BUT I MUST lost 100 #’s before heading out. LOVE THIS <3
G.K. - January 11, 2018 9:47 pm
I live in Crestview and I LOVE Desi’s! Their buffet is always good and their dessert bar will make you need to hit your knees and repent, cause I’ll guarantee you’re going to eat more than you should! (Hint: try the bread pudding and peach cobbler too, they are phenomenal!) Wish I’d been there when you were Sean. I’d love to have met you.
James McClain, Lakeland FL, native of Opelika AL - January 12, 2018 12:16 am
Desi’s is owned and operated by my cousin’s son, Tim English and his wife Los. You’re right, the place is filled every day at lunch. My aunt Ozell English, Tim’s grandmother would work on Frida and make fried okra by the barre, plus fried cornbread. UMMMMM! We always eat there when we visit our cousins.
ray hitchell - January 12, 2018 2:37 pm
Beautiful, man !!!
Mike - January 15, 2018 3:04 am
Apparently you were there on friday with the catfish. You missed the best fried chicken next to my deceased mother in laws they serve it during the week. Next time try the bread pudding and ask at tbe counter for a scoop of vanilla ice cream to put on it.