The coziness of Crechale’s Cafe envelops me from the start, from its old-school knotty pine paneling to the glow of the jukebox in the corner.
The intimate setting is as warm and familiar as the longtime staff, the neon seafood and steaks sign and the hearty greeting from owner Bob Crechale.
As if the “Welcome” neon over the front door doesn’t quite get the job done, Crechale follows up in a flash.
His “Hey there, how are y’all? Glad you’re here!” welcome pulls you in and puts a smiling start on dinner out.
Crechale’s Cafe opened in August 1956, started by his grandfather, Paul Crechale, and his mother, Bobbie Crechale.
Bob Crechale, in and out of the restaurant since childhood, settled into full-time the summer he turned 15. That continued through college at Ole Miss when, after his grandfather’s death, he took over that job, working almost every Friday and Saturday night and part of Sunday.
In the direct line of descent, he bought half the restaurant from his dad, John Crechale, at age 26 and the other half when he was 35.
Crechale’s bears the same Greek lineage of many of Jackson’s beloved historic eateries. His dad’s folks originally came from Skopelos, a small island in the Aegean Sea. “Growing up Greek, you had a good time in life,” he says, with celebrations long and full of joy. “You eat, you drink, you party, you visit, especially at a wedding, it’s wonderful.” And, it’s a recipe for hospitality.
He used to have a picture of the island’s little church; maybe it “walked off” as someone’s souvenir. A large photo of classical Greek ruins is there, though — a gift from Bill’s Greek Tavern, another Greek-rooted Jackson institution, now shuttered.
Comeback salad dressing, staple of local restaurant lore, stands open and ready to serve atop every table. They make it in-house, 10 to 20 gallons a day, he says, and it’s remained the same, save minor adjustments for consistency’s sake in 1991. He’s made only minute tweaks to the menu over the years. “If you’ve got a good thing going, don’t change it.”
Longevity is pervasive here. Shirrell Benton, manager, here for 58 years, “is one of the main reasons the restaurant’s a success,” Crechale says, and he tallies up more: Diane Marshall, chef, 42 years; Linda Alred, a manager, 34 years; Janet Hunter, “new lady on the block, hasn’t been here but 32 years.” Now retired twin sisters Mary and Martha Thomas put in more than a half century apiece and another sister, Lily, put in a quarter. Head waitress Kim Daugherty has logged 14 years. Longtime restaurateur Chris Grillis joined the staff a few years ago, “a blessing,” says Crechale, that gives him a bit of time off with family.
He pulls a picture off the wall to show and tell of the late Lena Mae Ward, master chef and “like a mother to me,” teacher and more, he says. “My mother was jealous of her, we were that close.”
“One reason we’re a success is because of these people. I’m not patting myself on the back.” he says. “I’m giving credit where credit lies.
“When you have good people, it makes the business. My name might be on the door, but it’s everybody’s restaurant.”
A loyal customer base has been with him that long, too. “It’s like seeing family members.”
Fresh Gulf seafood — shrimp, oysters, flounder, snapper, scallops — and hand-cut steaks of prime beef are big draws. Favorites? Those float around on the menu. Often, early orders can reign supreme all night; people in line see it go past, catch a whiff and want that, too.
“We try to have the best of everything,” he says, and proudly shows off a box of fresh Mississippi tomatoes that’ll star in the night’s caprese salad special.
A pyramid of fried onion rings, their batter light, crispy and golden as a treasure, keeps the hunger demons at bay at first. Head-turning platters parade past — crisply fried soft shell crabs and shrimp, sizzling steak, red snapper in wine sauce — and I know what’ll rule this night.
“I like to do what’s right, do my best and treat somebody like I want to be treated. And that’s how I try to operate this business,” Crechale’s says.
He also tries to greet everybody who walks in that door. Keeps up with them, too. He calls over to check on a nearby table. “Y’all fixed? I want you to be happy.”
“We’re fine!” comes the chorus. “We’re at home.”
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