Our latest installment of Quick Bites brings us to Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer's favorite dining establishment: Tom's Restaurant (a.k.a. Monk's).
Watch the Seinfeld pilot, which first aired 30 years ago on July 5th (as The Seinfeld Chronicles), and it's almost unfathomable that this weirdly paced, extremely New York City show would become one of the most popular television series of all time. Equally as impossible to predict: that, thanks to establishing shots in nearly every episode, Tom's Restaurant—where Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer talk about endless amounts of nothing—would become a NYC icon.
I admit that there's always the risk of nostalgia creeping in whenever I'm in the low 100s on the Upper West Side; I misspent a lot of my formative years up here, in the late 1970s and '80s. We drank at the West End, the Marlin, the Third Phase, and Cannon's and, after God knows how many $3.50 pitchers, we ate at Koronet, John's Pancake House, La Rosita, and, especially, at Tom's (which we of course simply called "the diner").
The neon-illuminated facade of Tom's is the same as it ever was, though now there's an outdoor seating area enclosed by banners bearing the names of Seinfeld characters. The interior, which has never resembled the Seinfeld version, also feels mighty familiar, layout-wise—lunch counter to your right, three rows of booths, bring your check to the cashier up front when you're done—but has probably been spruced up since the last time I was here, oh, 35 years ago. No surprise, there's Seinfeld memorabilia all over the place now, as well as lots of police patches for some reason.
I returned to Tom's twice last week for a pair of late-night dinners, and was pleasantly surprised about how well the place has held up. The menu is large in that classic diner way, but I stuck with dishes I always ordered back in the day. Most obviously, the Cheeseburger Deluxe, which I've probably eaten here at least fifty times before and, even wolfed down sober, proved to be an excellent version of the old mainstay, prepared medium rare as requested, and served with a hefty pile of crisp fries. Still good with a bit of that coleslaw on top, too.
It's breakfast time all day and night at Tom's of course, and although the stack of three oversized Pancakes was a little dry, there's a pleasant chewiness around the edges, and a slathering of butter, syrup, and strawberry jam improved matters considerably. The generous side of bacon performed its duties admirably as well. If you're in a more eggy mood, the Corned Beef Hash, topped with a pair of carefully handled sunny-side ups, definitely satisfies.
Back in the sandwich section, the Grilled American Cheese with Ham was taken off the griddle a bit too soon to reach ideal gloppiness, but overall was appropriately greasy and plenty flavorful. Always a good sign at a diner: the accompanying pickle was fat and fresh. Finally, the soup on Friday night was my old friend Clam Chowder, which they still serve Manhattan-style (though I'm sure the recipe has changed), and the reunion went well! The broth was thick and the not-too-rubbery bivalves plentiful. Definitely crumble a saltine on top for maximum flavor.
They say you can't go home again but maybe sometimes you can? Tom's Restaurant, which randomly received two big cultural boosts—Seinfeld and the Suzanne Vega song (DNA remix, of course)—hasn't let the fame get to its head too much, and remains a first-rate, non-"elevated" diner in a city that has far too few of those anymore. If you find yourself up here, pop in for a bite.
Tom's is located at 2880 Broadway, at the corner of West 112th Street, and is open Tuesday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m., and 24 hours from Friday through Monday (212-864-6137; tomsrestaurant.com)