Review: Checking in on the “Seinfeld” Diner 21 Years Later
There's no big salad at Tom's Restaurant — and that's fine
Thirty years ago this month, a sitcom about a quartet of New Yorkers made its debut on NBC. The “show about nothing” went on to become one of the most iconic television shows of all time. To celebrate three decades of George, Elaine, Kramer and Jerry, InsideHook will be sharing stories about the show’s lasting impression on fashion, comedy and American culture all week. To kick things off, we looked at the past, present and future of the real-life catalog that Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s character worked for, J. Peterman, and the show’s connection to a famous lingerie brand. Today, we travel to the Upper West Side to check out the food at the real-life version of the diner the gang frequented.
I found myself waiting for my friend Seth to arrive, and could tell it made the waitstaff nervous. Sure, the point of a restaurant in New York City is to try and get customers in and out as fast as possible to turn the table over to the next guests, but it was quiet for lunchtime. Only a few booths were occupied. Several parties-of-one were scattered among the stools along the counter. There were plenty of places for me to sit, but I had to wait. I reassured a waitress several times, but she remained skeptical that anybody was coming, let alone that I’d order anything, and made me keep standing. It seemed like an appropriate argument to have, almost like we were culturally obligated to gripe about nothing. What else does one do in the land of Seinfeld?
I was at Tom’s Restaurant. It’s a diner in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, but it’s best known as the facade for the diner from Seinfeld. Monk’s Café is where Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer convene over greasy food to complain about everything and everyone. In other words, Tom’s is where these fictional New Yorkers do what New Yorkers do best. The diner is the setting of many of the show’s most famous scenes, including the very meta one where George pitches Jerry on making a show “about nothing.” At the risk of triggering a “well, actually” from the vigilant r/Seinfeld mods, I’d say there’s at least one establishing shot of Tom’s Restaurant in nearly every episode of Seinfeld. Its blue-and-red neon sign runs the length of the facade, wrapping around Broadway to West 112th Street in an unusual way, so that if you stand on the corner it reads “Tom’s Restaurant Restaurant.” The shots inside the diner were filmed in a studio, but that doesn’t stop people from making the trek uptown to see it.
After a decade in New York, I’ve frequently passed by Tom’s and always dismissed it as a curious and minor tourist attraction, like Magnolia Bakery or all of Times Square. When I entered for the first time, I’ll admit that, yes, I could almost hear that goofy slap-bass theme over the Broadway traffic. But once I stepped inside, it looked like nothing like that classic sitcom setting. And, frankly, it was for the best.
While Tom’s recognizes its debt to Seinfeld, it’s not a shrine to the show that made it famous. They didn’t remodel to look like the show’s version of the place. There are a few signed posters, and some caricatures of the cast on the wall toward the narrow bathroom. By the counter, an illustration of Kramer shares space with a motley array of police department patches from far-flung cities like Skokie, IL, and Winnipeg, MB. Nearby are posters of the Columbia Women’s Basketball Team, a few years out of date. Behind the soda fountain, a large sign reads “Be Nice or LEAVE” in black, white and orange, the same colors you’d see on a closed sign hanging from a shop door or on the cover of a Penguin Classic. Occasionally tourists wander in, as they did when I visited. Without any outward signs of embarrassment, they take photos of the scant Seinfeld art and nod in appreciation while everyone ignores them.
While I was waiting inside the door for Seth to arrive, a waitress wryly explained to me that I could sit on the bench behind me instead of just standing in front of it.
Blessedly, there aren’t any kitschy Seinfeld-themed dishes on the menu: no Costanza melts, no Big Salad, no platter full of muffin tops perched on the counter. There is, however, a disclaimer on the back of the menu that there’s an $8 minimum order to sit in a booth — I suppose Seinfeld tourists looking for a quick selfie can sit at the counter. Our waitress made sure Seth and I were aware of this rule after she brought us our coffees and we weren’t ready with our orders. I did sit at the counter when I returned for breakfast a few days later. There, my order was repeated, indecipherably, into a microphone connected to the kitchen. My eggs over-easy and bacon were delivered to me flawlessly and, as if by magic, instantly.
Tom’s has what every good diner should have: a kind but no-bullshit staff; a comfortable atmosphere; and a menu with enough variety that it has to be organized by time of day. Diners shouldn’t get any fancier than a chicken parm or any fussier than a cobb salad. A diner should be decent, diverse and unsurprising. And, of course, breakfast must be served all day — a commitment which I think is enforced by either an ancient oath pledged to the diner cabal or the health department.
While I’m not a restaurant critic and have never even reviewed anything on Yelp, I still make those claims with authority. I like Seinfeld, but I love diners. In 2002, my high school graduating class voted me “Most Likely to be Seen at the Diner.” Last year, I cried at work when I heard my hometown diner was shutting down. Now I finally live on the same block as an all-night spot, but it’s lousy, and every time I go it breaks my heart — and gives me heartburn.
When I say diner food shouldn’t offer up too many surprises, I mean that it shouldn’t disappoint but it also shouldn’t be too good either. (A different Tom’s Restaurant in Brooklyn serves fancy pancakes and has a line outside its door every brunch, which is unacceptable for a diner and in general.)
A good diner should be just that. Good. Diners uphold a consistent, reliable adequacy. Diners are a bastion of the decidedly competent, a refuge from the constant striving for better, a bulwark from the fear of missing out.
What you’ll get at a good diner will be fine, if maybe a little too greasy. No matter your order, your food will not be substantially better or worse than what your boothmate got. And what you get will be — despite the diversity of the menu — something basic: eggs, a tuna melt or turkey club, perhaps an egg sandwich. Depending on the time of day, you might get disco fries or mozzarella sticks or a milkshake. Regardless of the time of day, you will get coffee — which will be refilled without asking.
At Tom’s, my friend and I focused on sandwiches. We ordered a turkey club on white bread, tuna on toasted whole wheat, chicken salad on rye (untoasted, because we were at the Seinfeld diner after all), mozzarella sticks and, of course, coffee.
The turkey club was on the dry side, an unfortunate but common failing of the sandwich. The chicken salad had wonderfully large chunks of meat in it. The tuna, on the other hand, looked like it had been blitzed to a humus-like consistency in a blender — with a welcome abundance of fresh celery. The bread on both sandwiches was good, particularly the rye. The mozzarella sticks were crispy and dark brown, but not too greasy; the cheese melted enough to stretch but not so much it made an ectoplasmic mess of things. They could have been served with more than a plastic cup of marinara. (I’m sure they would have brought more if we’d asked, but we didn’t because we’re not heathens.) And the coffee was, naturally, bottomless. Ultimately, the tuna was the winner, a particularly unusual feat for a sandwich that usually comes out drowning in mayo.
Despite its fame, Tom’s was just fine, as I expected it would be. It is simply a good diner and nothing else, and that’s really all it needs to be. While it isn’t the actual place where Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer spent every morning talking about being the masters of their respective domains and other yada yada yada, I could see them actually hanging out there for a few hours before going to their jobs at the comedy club, J. Peterman or whatever scheme Kramer is up to — even though it would probably annoy the staff.