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Tom's Restaurant

a closer look at a historic New York diner

Q&A with Mike Zoulis, manager and owner

How long have you managed Tom’s?

“Probably about 35 years…The restaurant has been in the family for a long time. My father was a part owner years ago, and then he passed on his share to me, and there are  several other cousins. It’s like a family business.”

 

What do you do as manager?

“Well basically anything besides cooking I do: hiring, firing, ordering food, dealing with customer complaints, dealing with complaints. Everything that has to do with running a business.”

 

Are there any special skills you’ve learned as a manager of Tom’s?

“I would say it’s very important to have people skills, you have to deal with, well if you have partners you have to deal with them, that’s like a marriage. You deal with customers, you deal with employees, you deal with suppliers, people for whatever reason didn’t deliver on time and left you hanging. These are very important things to keep the business going…You understand that if I’m dealing with you, sometimes you need to be treated with kid gloves, or she might need to be pushed around a little bit to wake her up or something, so you know everyone’s different. It’s important to pay attention and listen to other people so you get a feel of what exactly is bothering someone. Sometimes people open up and tell you, ‘look I didn’t like this or I don’t like this or you didn’t treat me right’–whatever. Or sometimes people say it in a covert way, they don’t come out directly, so you have to figure out what is upsetting him, did I do something wrong as a boss? Is someone mistreating him so I can deal with them?”

 

Does Tom’s have a lot of loyal customers?

“Quite a lot.  Like I said, there’s been a restaurant here since 1900. Tom’s has been here about 65-70 years…The people who come here, let’s say I’m here during the day, the customers who come during the day, I would say I know about 95% of them. The people who stay at night know the night customers…We don’t want anybody leaving the restaurant dissatisfied. If there’s something wrong you talk to us, we will rectify it. We want you to come back. The important thing is for people to come back.”

 

What’s it like having a community around the business?

“It used to be much more of a community, when it was a smaller Upper West neighborhood. A Lot of people had been here for many many years. Then what happened in the 70s with gentrification, a lot of the buildings were bought up by either investors or large organizations, a lot of the older tenants…I’m not going to say they were forced out, but they left. And new people came in.”

“The look has changed…years ago it used to be that Tom’s was like the cafes that we have in Europe, where people would come in, in the morning, and everybody knew each other.  There was bantering and kidding around and people knew about people’s families, everybody knew each other in the neighborhood. All the stores knew each other. Now a lot of the stores are owned by their owners and no one wants to get to know their next door neighbors. So it has changed and it’s not the way it used to be”

 

 

How does Tom’s appearance in the TV show Seinfeld affect business?

“People say, you owe it all to Seinfeld. No, Seinfeld was only around for 9 years, and [Tom’s] has been around for 70 years. There has to be a reason that customers keep coming back. And it has to do with the policy that I won’t give my customers something that I won’t eat. If you want a burger I’m gonna give it to you with good fries, a good bun, and a fresh pickle. That’s it. We make the best shakes and we’ve been making them for years. All ice cream. We used traditional ingredients. Buttermilk pancakes.”

“I would say that it’s helped us a great deal. In terms of percentages it’s very difficult to say. I mean it could be anywhere from 5 to 20 percent but it varies throughout the year. But it has definitely helped, there’s no doubt about it…We have tourists coming in from all over the world.”

“People say we’re stuck in the 50s, doesn’t matter. The people who know good food, if you want scrambled eggs with bacon and homefries, they know this is the place to come. Because you know you’re gonna get them the same way your parents would make them. They way like you them…I’m not going to give my customers something I won’t eat.”

 

Do you get any Seinfeld fanatics?

“There’s a guy that came in and took his shirt off and his whole body was tattooed with the Seinfeld show. His whole body’s got the actors, everything. Then we get people coming from, I don’t know, Timbuktu who say, ‘you know what, we came to New York and the only thing we want to see is your restaurant.’ And I say to them, ‘You really need to get a life.’ Because Tom’s is the last thing that is important in New York. There’s a lot of very devoted fans to the show. As far as they’re concerned, we’re very important to them.”

 

Anything you’d like to add?

“The restaurant itself is historic. There was actually a documentary done about 2 hours long done on Tom’s. There’s all sorts of famous people being interviewed. It’s an experience. You come here and on the weekends for example, at night, you can’t get in. After 1 or 2 in the morning, it’s packed. It’s a regular hangout spot for the Columbia kids, and all the clubs let out. That’s when you really see all the crazies of New York. Crazy outfits, or lack of outfits, to put it this way.”

Featured post

Interview with Mike Zoulis, Manager of Tom’s

A scene from “Seinfeld”:

At the beginning of the clip, the exterior of Tom’s is visible.  Once the shot moves inside, we see the actors perform from a studio in California

Suzanne Vega’s hit single about Tom’s:

Tom’s Restaurant in Photos

Tom’s Restaurant; Manhattan, NY.

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Tom’s Restaurant

I am sitting, in the morning, at the diner on the corner.”

Those are the first lines from singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega’s hit song “Tom’s Diner.”  The diner on the corner?  Tom’s Restaurant, a Greek-American owned landmark nestled on a busy corner in Manhattan, New York.

Tom’s presence in New York City began in the 1940s, when it was sold to Thasani (Thomas), a Greek immigrant.  It has been owned and operated by the same Greek-American family ever since, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner to locals and tourists.  

New Yorkers stroll by the corner of 112th and Broadway without a care in the world, never once shifting their eyes to the bright neon sign. For anyone else, eating at the diner is a special occasion.

“They come here from all over the world, Australia, Europe,” said one employee. “A lot of people come here.”

The reason Tom’s has become international monument? Seinfeld, a popular 90s sitcom featuring the restaurant. People come from all over the world looking to eat the same food that  iconic characters like Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, and George did.  

Seinfeld is considered to be one of the most defining  shows of the 90’s, born from the comic genius of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.

Almost every episode of Seinfeld features Tom’s diner with an exterior shot of the bustling street corner. The close knit gang of characters is never far from a warm meal at Tom’s, although in the show the restaurant is referred to as “Monk’s Cafe.”

 

Being featured on a popular TV show like Seinfeld illuminates Tom’s restaurant like a beacon on the Upper West Side of New York City. People travel to New York just for the sake of dining at Tom’s restaurant.

“I would say it’s helped us a lot, in terms of percentages, it’s hard to tell,” recalls Zoulis. “But it has definitely helped. There’s no doubt about that.”

 

To an unsuspecting patron, the restaurant’s history with Seinfeld might not be blatantly obvious.  However, closer inspection reveals details of the show’s influence.  A picture of the cast signed by Jerry Seinfeld, Michael Richards, Jason Alexander, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (the star actors) hangs above the cashier.  On the sidewalk outside, banners with names of the beloved characters (Jerry, Kramer, George, and Elaine) fence off the outdoor dining area.

 

Restaurant goers tend to be disappointed by the unfamiliar seating arrangement and interior design of Tom’s that they had grown so close to over all 9 seasons of Seinfeld. The inside of “Monk’s Cafe” was actually filmed in a California studio, which can be off putting to unsuspecting Seinfeld fanatics.   

Even before appearing on Seinfeld, Tom’s received pop-culture attention when Suzanne Vega released “Tom’s Diner” in April 1987.  Vega wrote the song from the perspective of a customer getting breakfast on a rainy morning at Tom’s.  She refers to reading the newspaper and sipping Tom’s coffee.  It went on to become an international hit, topping the singles charts in countries like Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, as well as finding success in the United States.

Tom’s history may be the selling point for most tourists, but it is the food itself that keeps repeat customers like Columbia students coming back.  Breakfast is served all day at Tom’s, and one of the more popular dishes is the “Lumberjack”: two pancakes, two eggs, any style, one sausage, two strips of bacon and toast for $10.50.  But in addition to breakfast, the restaurant also serves up a long menu of hot and cold sandwiches, Italian specialties, seafood, steak and chops, salads, burgers, soups, and appetizers.  In keeping with the family name, one can also find a selection of traditional Greek Gyro dishes.  Shakes also hold a special place in Tom’s menu and reputation.

We make the best shakes them same way we’ve been making them for years. All ice cream, you know no artificial ingredients” said Ziolis.

For many of the younger generations that have not seen the famous sitcom, Tom’s Diner is just another diner. People forget that Tom’s was a thriving New York restaurant before its appearance in Seinfeld.

 

“People say, you owe it all to Seinfeld. No, Seinfeld was only around for 9 years, and [Tom’s] has been around for 70 years. There has to be a reason that customers keep coming back,” said Ziolis, “And it has to do with the policy that I won’t give my customers something that I won’t eat. If you want a burger I’m gonna give it to you with good fries, a good bun, and a fresh pickle. That’s it.”

Food Review

Tom’s Restaurant had an elaborate and exciting menu filled with a large variety of foods to choose from. It ranged from breakfast choices like eggs and pancakes (breakfast is served all day) to lunch and dinner entrees like burgers and pasta. More specifically, when eating at the restaurant, our group ordered wraps, sandwiches, caesar salads, chicken fingers and french fries. The salads were pretty large with big pieces of lettuce and heavy dressing and some crispy croutons at $10.25. Though overall the bowl was enjoyable with cold romaine lettuce and a satisfying crunch, the dressing could have been more evenly spread throughout the salad. Additionally, the chicken fingers were displayed in a row on a large plate with a stack of french fries on the side along with a cup of soup and some sauces for $9.25. They were a very classic choice with a crunchy batter and soft tasty meat. The table had devoured all of the delicious chicken fingers within the minute and could not bare to leave any of this delicious meal uneaten. We also ordered the chicken caesar wrap which was $9.50. The wrap was cold and crisp with fresh lettuce and tender chicken meat. Sandwiches were neatly stacked high with tasty meat and juicy, fresh tomatoes. A classic BLT was $5.00 and was delivered to the table in about 15 minutes.  This was around 1:00 PM, though, a busy time for the diner.  Tables were packed tightly and our group of seven waited about five to ten minutes to be seated.  

Coming in for an early, 7:30/8:00 breakfast presents a very different dining experience.  Food arrived more quickly and servers were more quiet and collected as they bounced around the few occupied tables.  For the first meal of the day, I recommend “The Lumberjack,” which comes loaded with eggs cooked any style, bacon, a sausage, pancakes, and toast: the quintessential breakfast combo.  Two over-easy eggs draped over fluffy buttermilk pancakes were the centerpiece of the meal, full of flavor and cooked to perfection.  To top it off, the dish arrived with a small cup full of complimentary orange juice.  Quick, delicious, and reliable, Tom’s Restaurant is a fantastic place to grab some food and coffee before heading off to work or class.  With its consistency and good food, we expect Tom’s will be around for another 70 years, at least.

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