This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who
I am sitting in the morning at the diner on the corner. I wasn't waiting at the counter (I was at a table) or for the man to pour the coffee. I order a cherry lime rickey and it came pretty fast.
I was at Tom's Restaurant, a landmark diner in Prospect Heights since 1936. It's the kind of place where people order cherry lime rickeys and egg creams, not to mention breakfast all day, because they can. Near my table was a framed picture of the lyrics to "Tom's Diner." At the bottom, Suzanne Vega had signed it, "I Came. I Saw. I Wrote."
But she didn't. As much as I love Tom's Restaurant, and wish Vega's 1990 hit had been about it, the song was about Tom's Diner on The Upper West Side. You know, the "Seinfeld" diner. Vega herself has said so. So what's she doing giving Tom's Restaurant the credit? And what's Tom's Restaurant doing taking the credit? Curious.
But you have to expect a little bogus myth-making at a place this old. It opened as Lewnes, an ice cream parlor. Tom Vlahavas took it over in the 1940s. He's the Tom of the name, though the diner wasn't called that at first. Son Gus took over for Tom, and Gus himself retired last year, moving to Colorado. Gus sold the place to a nephew, Jimmy Kokotas. So it's still in the family.
There's a lot of stained-glass inside Tom's. I assume this is a relic from the place's ice cream parlor days. There are also great many flags, Christmas lights and plants, both real and fake. (One tree outside was planted in memory of old Tom.) These circus-is-in-town factors tend to obscure some of the restaurant's lovelier architectural aspects—the lovely, battered tilework on the floor; the oddly constructed wooden booths, which somehow evoke train travel; the old, now sadly unworking phone booth.
My waiter says people come from Manhattan and Queens to eat here. But it looked like mainly locals during my recent visit. Families with their kids, old folks with their spouses, young couples, solo diners (Tom's does not mind if one person takes up an entire booth), and small gangs of roving hipsters. Some have obviously been coming here for decades. Others were so new that they stared at their egg creams like they were archeological relics. A sign forbid the use of cell phones, some couldn't help themselves and resorted to texting.
The staff is inordinately cheerful, and is happy to relate the joint's history and extol the virtues of the many, many dishes, particularly the enormous number of breakfast entrees. I almost ordered the Salisbury steak because, outside of frozen dinners, who serves Salisbury steak anymore? My waiter told me more meatloaf was sold than Yankee pot roast, but more brisket was sold than meat loaf. You can't argue with the people, so I go the brisket. It was diner brisket. Not bad, moderately flavorful, with fluffy mashed potatoes and fresh, crisp broccoli. It was worth what I paid, which wasn't much.
—Brooks of Sheffield
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