Gus Vlahavas, the longtime owner of beloved Prospect Heights diner Tom’s Restaurant, died of a respiratory illness on Nov. 5, his nephew said. He was 76.
Vlahavas ran Tom’s for decades and remained a fixture there during the past five years, after handing the reigns to his nephew Jim Kokotas.
Vlahavas grew up in the corner restaurant that his father — Tom — opened on Washington Avenue at Sterling Place in 1936, and became a regular presence there as an adult starting around age 25, Kokotas said.
A neighborhood stalwart through thick and thin, Vlahavas, whose family is white, had the enduring loyalty of customers and area residents, Kokotas said. That became clear during the riot that followed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1968 assassination, when black locals linked arms in front of the eatery, protecting it from looters and vandals targeting white-owned businesses.
“Gus was always proud to say he was from Prospect Heights,” Kokotas said. “Even when the neighborhood wasn’t so great he was good to them and they were good to him.”
Vlahavas began running Tom’s in full during the 1980s, his nephew said, famously serving food to the people who lined up outside for a table.
Kokotas took over in 2009, but Vlahavas kept coming to shoot the breeze with regulars who have been eating there for decades, and in some cases more than three quarters of a century.
“I have customers who are older than me who tell me they remember their parents bringing them here,” said Kokotas. “Ninety-year-old customers remember coming here when they were teens. It’s been great to hear those stories.”
News of Vlahavas’s passing prompted a wave of e-mails, phone calls, and text messages, Kokotas said.
“When you work for something you don’t always get a pat on the back,” Kokotas said. “But the support has been tremendous. The work he put into this neighborhood, the response has been that pat on the back.”
In the wake of the death Kokotas stressed that all the familiar elements of the greasy spoon will remain intact, and said they might become even more accessible.
“We’ve always tried to carry on the tradition,” said Kokotas. “We’ve been talking about changes we can make based on listening to customers, like being open on Sunday or extending all our hours, but the rest of it is the same.”
A wake for Vlahavas will be held on Nov. 9 from 2 to 4 pm and from 7 to 9 pm at Cobble Hill Chapels at 171 Court St. at Dean Street. His funeral will be held on Nov. 10 at Saints Constantine and Helen Cathedral at 64 Schermerhorn St. between Court Street and Boerum Place, time to be determined.