Crystal Beer Parlor: John Nichols

John Nichols // Photo by Geoff L. Johnson

Since 1933, Savannahians have tucked into the Crystal Beer Parlor’s cozy booths or bellied up to the bar for a loaded burger and a cold glass of suds. It’s a simple concept that’s endured through the rise of gourmet fare and fancy microbrews, though prices have increased a tad since the days when a draft beer cost just 10 cents. Chef and Savannah native John Nichols took over the historic restaurant in 2009 and continues the Crystal’s long-standing traditions — casual food, easy camaraderie and Savannah-style celebration — with a few tweaks of his own.

On taking on a local institution: After I had John and Linda’s Restaurant in City Market years ago, I said I was never going back to owning a restaurant. I was doing very well with my catering business, and I got a flyer in the mail advertising “a piece of Savannah history for lease.” I threw it in the trash. But then I mentioned to my staff that the Crystal was available, and you’d have thought I’d given them $10 million, they were so excited. So here we are.

On living up to the name: We’re proud of our bar, but what you see isn’t what we got. The right end of the bar is original, but the piece on the left was completely reconstructed when we took over. There were originally only 10 seats — I thought, how can we call ourselves the Crystal Beer Parlor and only have 10 seats? So, we doubled it. And we live up to the name. We’ve got 26 beers on tap, and another 50 or 60 in bottles and cans. I prefer simple, a nice, golden-colored IPA. A chocolate-cinnamon-orange beer? Not for me. I guess I’m a bit of a purist.

On his loyal staff: This place is definitely a collaboration. Paige Brown is our general manager; she’s been with me for almost 30 years. Her management style is a little unorthodox, but the staff would rather die than disappoint her. Ben Mammina is responsible for our bar; he’s in constant contact with our suppliers for the newest craft beers. And, of course Rebecca Hardman, our bookkeeper.

On all that memorabilia: I remembered the place being covered in photos when I was a kid. When we first got here, there were a few pictures on the wall and a few newspaper clippings, but not nearly as many as I remembered. So, between eBay, the Georgia Historical Society, my personal collection and guests who brought in their own, we filled it back up. For instance, the photo of [former City Alderman] Leo Center behind the bar, when he was still boxing and he got knocked out, I remembered that one from my childhood — but it was gone. Now we have it on permanent loan from his son, Scott.

On a different kind of spirit: Oh, this place is definitely haunted! Our tenant upstairs has told us multiple times that she’s been in bed and felt someone tugging on her toe and heard a little girl giggling. There’s also the photo by the pay phone — a customer snapped two photos of the front door through an open car window — the first one is just the door, and in the second you can clearly see a woman holding a child; it’s crazy. And there’s the telephone itself — it had been dead for years, the number no longer in service. A few months after we opened, the damn thing rang three times. I picked it up and it was dead silence. It’s never happened again.

On new additions: I started in the restaurant business working for Herb Traub at The Pirate’s House, and I always loved the neat little gift shop he had. People would wander in while they were waiting for their table, and I liked the idea of offering something to our guests that gives them something to do and helps to generate a bit more revenue. This space was just sitting here as paper storage, and now it’s the Crystal Trading Company, where patrons can find local gifts, art and other fun treasures.

On building a storied menu from scratch: I’m telling you right now, this menu was the hardest I’d ever done. We’ve stuck to the original as much as we possibly can, though obviously, liver and onions wasn’t going to be a big seller. But I have to stay in keeping with the ethos of the Crystal:, It’s an old- school place. The crazy thing is that when we got here, there was no recipe book. We built it back from memory and from recipes we’d used in our other restaurants. One thing I never want to do is scare people. I want them to recognize what’s on the menu. No haute cuisine here — I’ll leave that to the young guys.

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