“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.”