If every building in New York City was to somehow be wiped off the face of the earth, and I had the power to pick only one to remain standing, I would choose Tom’s Diner in a heartbeat. Though I think of the Chrysler Building like a part of my own body, I would have to let it go. I get chills every time I catch a glimpse of Yankee Stadium, but I would bid it a premature farewell. Tom’s Diner, on Washington Avenue and Sterling Place in Prospect Heights, has taken hold of my soul like no other place in New York.
The first few times I ever visited Brooklyn, Tom’s was my only destination. So for a long while I had an impression of that borough as a magical land of warm, convivial people who treated me like an old friend and served outrageously tasty, old-fashioned food. It seemed like I’d found a fold in the universe, a place left behind by time. And I wasn't the only one. An old newspaper clipping in the window boasted that when Washington Avenue was in flames during the riots that followed Marin Luther King’s assassination, the good people of the neighborhood formed a human chain around Tom’s.
I soon discovered that the rest of Brooklyn isn’t quite the same as that idyllic diner. But I’ve returned to Tom’s countless times, and it never changes. If there is a line, someone will come by with offerings of chocolate chip cookies like my mom used to make or orange slices like I used to eat during half time at soccer games. And each time I leave, Gus, whose father gave the diner its name in 1936, provides me with kindly smiles, pleasant banter, and a lollipop of my choice.
I’m sure Tom’s lunch menu is delicious, but I’ve never ordered from it. They serve breakfast all day, so I can’t resist. The highlight of the menu is the classic Belgian waffles that Brooklynites have made a staple of their diets (see Blue In The Face). The thick, fluffy waffles come with bananas, blueberries, or strawberries. They are meant to be smothered in syrup and three kinds of blissfully sweet butters flavored with lemon, cranberry, and, my favorite, cinnamon. Certain bold regulars (myself included on occasion) order the Belgian waffle with a scoop of ice cream, a hearty dollop of whipped cream, and a cherry on top, along with a juicy fried pork sausage for good measure.
The cherry lime ricky, a refreshing concoction of seltzer and syrup left over from the days of the soda jerk, is Gus’ pride and joy, and he happily gives free refills. If, for some odd reason, you don’t order the famous cherry lime ricky, Gus might bring you one on the house. At Tom’s Diner, that’s just the way it is, and that’s the way it will always be.
Tom’s Diner aka Tom's Restaurant (closed at 4pm and closed Sundays), 782 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-636-9738