By Alexander Aibel
While Tom’s Restaurant’s fame is attributed to being featured on Seinfeld and being the subject of Suzanne Vega’s hit song “Tom’s Diner”, its hidden treasure lies within the welcomeness, compassion, and modesty of the restaurant.
Bought by Tom Glikas in the 1940’s, Tom’s has been a staple on the corner of 112th and Broadway ever since. The restaurant’s unique exterior and blue and red neon sign light up the block at night, while the interior has a counter or booths for customers to sit in.The family run business has been able to operate for almost 80 years now, serving a medley of foods. People dine in at all different times, from a pre-work meal to a drunk 2 a.m. snack.
In 1989, the Seinfeld crew came by looking for a place to shoot, and the restaurant signed a release allowing them to do so (They only used the outside). While the restaurant gained a magnitude of publicity from the show– and Vega’s song, the fame and recognition changed nothing in the restaurant’s mind.
“People say, ‘why don’t you advertise? You’re so famous, and the food is so good’ First of all, it’s just the capacity because we don’t have such a big capacity, and second, we like to play it low-key,” said current partner Mike Zoulis. “We’re well-known as it is, and we’d rather our food be the drawing element. Even though people do come in for the Seinfeld, they end up leaving thinking, ‘Well, we never expected the food to be this good.’ That’s what it is – we’re still a restaurant.”
Zoulis “low-key” attitude towards the national recognition of the restaurant is the reason many loyal customers keep coming back. Zoulis doesn’t feel the need to put up signs reading something like “As Seen on Seinfeld!” or heavily advertise his restaurant to the public.
“For me, [running the restaurant] has always been a simple formula. I learned when I started is that it’s not rocket science. Basically, the customers want good food, good prices, and good service.” said Zoulis.
Longtime customers appreciate Zoulis and the restaurant’s soft-sell outlook on business, and the emphasis put on caring for the customers and not the fame is a major component in what keeps them coming back.
Compassion and at-home treatment is a major factor in what has made Columbia administrator and regular Tom’s customer Peter “Boots” Cerneka keep coming back.
“I stay here because I like the food, and they’re very welcoming. For example, every time I come in they give me a newspaper, and they don’t have to do that, but they do,” said Cerneka.
The newspaper Cerneka receives when he dines in is one example of the connection between customers and employees. New York has hundreds of diners– many with better food than Tom’s– but Cerneka, like numerous other customers, keep coming back to Tom’s.
“I think there are a lot of diners and what makes a diner special is how it’s run. The food is not unique, the idea is not unique. So if you run it in a way where you’re taking care of your customers and build a community– you’re gonna have success,” said Cerneka.
Madeline Gray, a regular at Tom’s for decades, treasures the friendliness and warmth of the diner.
“I like the people who work here. They remember you if you come here more than twice, they say ‘hello’ to you. They give you good service, they let you pick things out, and that’s a characteristic of diners,” said Gray. “They’re just very considerate of their customers.”
The great service and kindness of the workers is what appeals to Gray, not the fame and prominence of the restaurant. Tom’s is far more than just a place on Seinfeld, and the restaurant should continue to strive for years to come, and have even more regulars.
“I don’t think it [the fame] makes a difference and that’s what’s rather nice about it, that the fame didn’t go to their heads. You know, it’s nice to say that you’ve been on the Seinfeld show, but it’s just basically a really good diner,” said Gray.