Deci's Restaurant a Scene out of "American Graffiti"
By Richard Tambling
originally printed in the July 30, 2001 edition of the Journal Inquirer
reprinted with permission

Deci's was a fixture in Manchester from the late 1940s into the 70s. Despite its longevity, though, it was a quintessential '50s drive-in restaurant that had more than a little "American Graffiti" atmosphere.

Located at 462 Center St. on one of the main roads into Manchester, Deci's was right next door to Willie's Steak House, a popular formal restaurant. In contrast, Deci's was basically a lunch and late-night snack-spot.

Anthony and Crescent DeCiantis owned and operated Deci's, and one man I spoke to who worked there -- who chose to remain anonymous -- said he thinks that Tony was a cook in the Army during World War II, with the brothers opening the drive-in right after the war.

The man I spoke with said, "They were both down-to-earth people -- nice people. Cres' would give you the shirt right off his back. And Tony was an excellent businessman."

After a 1960 expansion, the restaurant's new building allowed customers to troop inside into a corridor in front of the service counter. There was some outside seating at a few picnic tables on a "patio" with no roof, but it was basically an eat-in-the-car place.

The prices were reasonable, and trademark foods were foot-long hot dogs, broasted chicken, fried clams, onion rings, and french fries. Clams, rings, and fries came in cardboard containers with a two-pronged wooden fork for spearing them. But Deci's menu included much more.

In 1960, a chicken dinner with cranberry sauce and fries cost $1.39. A "chicken snack" of leg and thigh or breast and wing with fries went for 95 cents. A steak sandwich cost 45 cents, and a pastrami sandwich cost 55 cents. And a whole broasted chicken -- "deep-fried but not greasy" -- cost $1.98.

For a drink, you could have Novelade as well as the usual selections like Coca Cola, coffee, and milk.

Behind the counter, the help wore short-sleeved shirts and white aprons. There was a deep-fat fryer, a coffeemaker, and about six feet of griddle.

What's a little surprising from the vantage point of the 21st century is that most of the employees were not high school kids, but adults. Oh, you might see a few 16- or 17-year-old kids behind the counter at Deci's, but most of the employees were grown men.

It was a time when a lot of women didn't work, and a lot of men had second jobs. For example, the man I spok with said, "I worked there part-time for 18 years beginning in the late 1950s while I was full-time at the aircraft."

Deci's was open seven days a week and didn't close until 1 a.m. on weekends.

"They had fantastic lunch hours," he said. "And it would be so packed with people on a Saturday night that you couldn't even get in the door."

At the busiest times, "Seven ro eight guys would be working behind the counter."

Remembering items on the menu, he said there was a clam plate, shrimp plate, and a chicken plate as well as all kinds of grinders and all kinds of ice cream sundaes.

One of the big attractions was a special hot sauce used as a condiment on hot dogs and burgers. "It was a real draw," the man I spoke with said.

Tom Manhoney of Manchester worked at Deci's for several years, sometimes part-time, sometimes full-time, beginning in the middle 1960s.

As he remembers it, Deci's was open from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays and until midnight or 1 a.m. on weekends. He worked on all three shifts at one time or another.

"I remember getting out at 2 in the morning after closing up," he said. "And by the time we left the place was spotless."

Deci's was noted for its foot-long hot dogs, fried clams, and broasted chicken, he says. Working there, you had to commit to memory the price of everything.

"We never had fancy cash registers," Tom said. "As the food was coming down the line, you'd add it up in your head."

"Coming down the line" means that at busy times, a customer would place his or her order at one end of the long front counter and follow his plate down as food was added to it.

"If you ordered fries, the guy who cooked them for you would put them on your plate," Tom said. "Then he'd give it to the grill man, who'd put on your dog or cheeseburger."

A counter man, not the customer, would put the condiments you asked for on your dog or burger.

"Dressing them" was what the employees called it. I seem to remember that if you wanted "everything" on it, the counter lingo for that was to "drag it through the garden." The condiments included mustard, relish, ketchup, sauerkraut, and onions as well as Deci's own beloved hot sauce.

"It was a meaty sauce, and it was Cres' and Tony's little secret," Tom said.

As for the ingredients, "They got nothing but the top stuff. I remember they paid something like 20 bucks for a gallon of clams. Today you'd probably pay 20 bucks for an order of them but that was a lot of money then.

They didn't cut corners on anything. We got fresh, whole chickens and cut them up ourselves," Tom said.

He remembers peeling and slicing the onions and breading them in the back room. The staff would bread the clams, too, and the french fries were also made from scratch.

They also ground their own hamburger and made the patties daily.

"Everything was fresh," Tom said. "Nothing was flown in from Mexico."

One thing that some potential customers were uncomfortable with was that motorcycle riders sometimes congregated at Deci's.

When I mentioned that to Tom, he laughed and said, "I was one of those motorcycle guys. I was out in the parking lot as much as I was behind the counter."

He did agree with me somewhat, saying, "Even my wife tells me that her father told her never to go into Deci's at that time." But he added, "We ate a lot. If we scared anyone away, I don't think they lost money."

Deci's finally closed in the 1970s, and the restaurant was razed, the property becoming a parking lot for Willie's.