'Everyone is the mayor' at Desi's Downtown Restaurant in Crestview

Tony Judnich
Northwest Florida Daily News

CRESTVIEW — For more than two decades, the palace of comfort food known as Desi’s has served as a downtown magnet, attracting each weekday a lunchtime crowd eager for its all-you-can-eat buffet of plump and juicy fried chicken, homemade bread pudding and other Southern gastronomic delights.

Desi’s Downtown Restaurant is an institution in a landmark building at 197 N. Main St. It’s one of Crestview’s oldest restaurants and it’s even busier, and no doubt more fun, than Main Street’s other top hotspot: the Okaloosa County Courthouse.

Cook Connor English brings out a new tray of stuffed peppers for the hot buffet bar at Desi's Downtown Restaurant on Main Street in Crestview.

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Peer through Desi’s huge front windows during its business hours from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on any day of the week and you’re likely to see a swarm of seated diners. Oftentimes, a line of customers forms up to the buffet. On Fridays, the line extends outside.

“First of all, we know we can’t please everyone, but we try to,” Desi’s owner Tim English Sr., 55, said Thursday about one of the reasons for his eatery’s popularity. “The customers have been really good to us. They treat us like family because we treat them like family.”

He said all of the diners, whether they’re judges and lawyers from the courthouse or homeless folks from the streets, are held in equal esteem. 

“Everyone is the mayor” at Desi’s, Tim said.

Down on Main Street

Tim first opened Desi’s in May 2000 in a building at 224 N. Main St. that more recently housed Christopher’s Uncorked Bistro. After two years, Desi’s, which is named after his daughter, Desireé, moved to its current location.  

“We went from 72 chairs to 200 chairs” for diners, he said of the catty-corner business relocation.

The two-story brick building that Desi’s now calls home was built in the 1920s and formerly housed a hotel and other establishments. Desi’s occupies much of the first floor, which previously contained an array of businesses over the years, including a tire shop, department store, pharmacy and soda shop.

Diners get in line for the hot buffet bar at Desi's Downtown Restaurant on Main Street in Crestview. One side of the restaurant was formerly a soda stand and still has the counter, stools and checkerboard floors.

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The counter, stools and other elements of the soda shop still are in place next to Desi’s buffet area. Tim recalled the major renovation that was needed to convert offices into the restaurant’s kitchen.

There, his son, Connor, works as Desi’s head chef. Also helping run the restaurant and making it a hugely popular spoke of the Hub City are Tim’s wife, Lois, his daughter, Desireé, and his mother, Jackie. Tim and Lois’ other son, Tim Jr., used to work at the restaurant but now is a minister in Franklin, Tennessee.

“It’s for sure family-run,” Tim said of Desi’s. “That’s one of the keys to our success.”

Before opening the restaurant, Tim’s career included working at a Furr’s Cafeteria in Texas, as well as handling management duties for Holiday Inn and Waffle House. In addition to overseeing Desi’s, he has served for almost 22 years as the announcer for the Crestview High School Bulldogs football games on WAAZ-FM 104.7.

Tim graduated from CHS in 1984.

Tim English, owner of Desi's Downtown Restaurant in Crestview, stops to chat during the lunch rush.

The food

Because of health restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Desi’s switched from a self-serve buffet to one in which customers receive their orders from employees. Tim said he would like to soon bring back the self-serve buffet, which some customers prefer and which would join the employee-served one.

The current all-you-can-eat buffet costs $13 per customer. Besides the famous fried chicken, the top foods include meatloaf, pork chops, pork roast and rice, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes with gravy, sweet potatoes, green beans and other vegetables, and desserts such as banana pudding, bread pudding and apple crisp.

Fried chicken is one of the most popular items at Desi's Downtown Restaurant in Crestview.

“Everything is made from scratch,” Tim said. “There’s nothing out of a can.”

Many of the buffet items are based on Tim and Lois’ old family recipes. Many of the menu choices change daily. Each weekday, Lois graciously lists them for customers on a recorded message that can be heard by calling 850-682-5555.

And at 10:57 a.m. sharp each weekday, Tim gives a brief Facebook Live presentation that includes tantalizing, close-up views of that day’s menu items.

He praised Lois for memorizing the beverage preferences of hundreds of Desi’s customers.

“She says, 'When I see them at Walmart, I know them by their drink,'” Tim said with a laugh.

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In early 2020 when pandemic-caused mandates began preventing customers from dining inside restaurants, Desi’s began offering daily buy-one-get-one-free buffet meal deals. These BOGOs have remained in place, and they’re randomly awarded to viewers who share posts from the restaurant’s Facebook page.

“We’ve given about 1,200 meals away so far,” said Tim, who added that Desi’s also has given numerous free meals to first responders over the years.

He praised Crestview City Manager Tim Bolduc and Mayor JB Whitten for the city’s business-assistance program that helped Desi’s and other establishments stay afloat early on during the pandemic, and for their overall business-friendly stance.

Tim said about 50% of Desi’s customers eat at the restaurant at least three days a week.

“And we see new customers every day,” he said.

Customers arrive for lunch at Desi's Downtown Restaurant on Main Street in Crestview.

He recalled only one couple in Desi’s history who were dissatisfied with their food, a situation that led to him paying for their meals. Those customers later returned and became twice-a-week regulars.

Lois agrees with her husband that treating customers like family, and “treating everybody the same,” remains part of Desi’s trademark.

Prayer also has been a big factor, she said.

“It’s like coming home,” Lois said of a visit to Desi’s. “A lot of customers will comment, 'I haven’t had this since my grandma made it.' ”

Jackie English cashes out a customer during the lunch rush at Desi's Downtown Restaurant in Crestview.

Tim’s mother, Jackie, began occasionally serving as the restaurant’s cashier in 2009 after she retired from a 38-year-career as a bookkeeper and data processor for the Okaloosa County School District. She started working regularly at Desi’s in the early days of the pandemic.

Desi’s “is a gathering place,” Jackie said. “Good people come in here. It feels like you know everybody when they come in. We do get new people, but they feel very welcome.”