The beloved owner of Tom’s Restaurant in Prospect Heights has gone into semi-retirement and handed over the grill to his nephew who promises no changes in the famously courteous diner — except that it will finally be open on Sundays.
Gus Vlahavas, the cheerful face who stopped by every table and handed dollar coins and treats to the kids, stopped working full-time at the luncheonette named for his father in May. The retirement began after his wife, Nonie, another fixture in the greasy spoon, developed arthritis, Vlahavas’s nephew Jim Kokotas told The Brooklyn Paper.
“Gus decided to ride off into the sunset with her. He said, ‘We came in together, so we’ll go out together,’” said Kokotas.
Tom’s Restaurant, proud purveyor of hearty breakfasts like sweet potato pancakes and beef sausage, opened in 1936 as an ice cream parlor under a different name. Vlahavas’s father acquired the Washington Avenue eatery in the 1940s from the original owners, who were family friends, and renamed it Tom’s, Kokotas said.
It was the affable Gus who elevated the level of customer service. It was his idea to provide free coffee, orange slices, cookies and French fries to Saturday morning patrons waiting for tables in the tightly packed dining room. His nephew said he also is responsible for the kitschy, yet endearing, décor, which could be described as quintessential Americana.
“Gus was the mastermind behind all that,” said Kokotas. “He took family friendly service and brought it to a new level.”
The one complaint customers have had for years is that the restaurant didn’t open on Sundays, because Vlahavas was a dedicated member of two church choirs.
Kokotas, himself a regular churchgoer, said Tom’s will begin Sunday service in September or October once a new kitchen crew and waitstaff can be assembled for the extra shift.
“Gus made it clear that’s one of the thing he wants to do,” he said. “But give me some time, because we don’t want to sacrifice the quality of the food and the service,”
The restaurant has been popular for decades and its place in the neighborhood enabled it to survive New York City’s darkest days. In the rioting following the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, black and white customers protected the restaurant from looters who destroyed other businesses in the neighborhood.
Not all the lore associated with Tom’s is true. Contrary to persistent rumors, Suzanne Vega did not write her hit “Tom’s Diner,” about this restaurant. That honor belongs to the Tom’s Restaurant in Manhattan, whose façade regularly appeared in episodes of “Seinfeld,” an enduring 1980s comedy series.
That said, a copy of the lyrics to the Vega song, signed by the artist, adorns the wall in the back corner of the eatery.