The real Seinfeld diner in New York: Inside Tom's Restaurant

Barry Divola hangs out at the New York diner made famous by Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer.

In many ways, Tom's Restaurant is like any other old-school diner in New York. It's got the counter with the row of round stools. It's got the padded booths. It's got the no-fuss comfort food. And it's got the 75-cent coffee. 

But Tom's, which has been in business on the corner of Broadway and W112th Street in Morningside Heights on the Upper West Side since the late 1940s, is different for one very big reason. It was the Seinfeld diner. An exterior shot featuring its distinctive signage was used in any episode where Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer would meet to drink coffee, order a big salad and exchange banter about nothing. 

I decide to drop in on one of the busiest days of the year. So busy, in fact, that owner Mike Zoulis tells me to arrive at 6am for breakfast or he won't have any time to sit and talk. It's graduation day at nearby Columbia University – students, staff and their families make up a large proportion of the clientele at Tom's. 

Before she became a well-known singer-songwriter, former Columbia student Suzanne Vega used to eat there regularly and she wrote one of her most popular songs, Tom's Diner, while sitting at the counter observing all the regulars. Another student who hung out in the early 1980s went on to pretty big things too. His name was Barack Obama. 

Zoulis, who is 66, took over the diner from his father in 1980. He's the one who signed the release form back in 1989 when the Seinfeld crew arrived. How much was he paid?

"Nothing," he says. "That doesn't bother me. Think about it. It's all been free publicity. If you tried to advertise on Seinfeld it would cost millions. 

"The Seinfeld thing gives us extra business, and I'm grateful for that, but Seinfeld was around for nine years. We've been here for almost 70. It's been a popular neighbourhood restaurant that whole time. If we wanted to go the whole Hollywood route we would have changed the place to look like the Seinfeld set. We're not doing that."

They're certainly not. Tom's has remained pretty much the same for decades and that's why the locals love it. Zoulis estimates that 80 per cent of his customers are New Yorkers. 

"Tom's is a representation of the older, more tolerant New York," says Zoulis. "People from all walks of life come in here and they talk to each other. They talk sports, they talk politics, they talk about everything. I've been here over 35 years and of course things have changed a lot in the city but I'd like to think we've still got a bit of the old city in here. People can still get along with each other in Tom's." 

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If you turn up on any given day, you might find yourself sitting next to former session guitarist Bob Rose, who played on the soundtracks to Deep Throat, Grease, Footloose and Twin Peaks and used to be in Dave Letterman's house band. Or philosophers Cornel West and David Sidorsky, who are often in there discussing the world with other customers over coffee. 

"We have lots of professors and intellectuals who are regulars. I've known Cornel for over 25 years. We have very interesting conversations abut philosophy. David Sidorsky is truly brilliant. He sits at the counter and listens to regular conversations and then gets involved. He can talk about anything. You could say something like 'What was it like in 1935 in Australia?' and he'd know all about it."

Actor William Hurt used to live across the street and come in all the time, while scientists from the NASA Godard Institute For Space Studies upstairs from the diner would drop in for coffee breaks while they worked on the computer model for global warming. 

People come to Tom's for the food and the sense of community, but of course, many tourists come for one reason – to make a connection with an iconic TV show. Zoulis does have signed photos and magazine covers featuring the Seinfeld cast on the walls, but doesn't capitalise on the connection too much. Besides, he's realistic. 

"Seinfeld made us known to millions," he says. "But you can only sit 80 people in here at a time." 

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

visittheusa.com.aunycgo.com

GETTING THERE

United flies daily from Sydney to Los Angeles and San Francisco, and daily from Melbourne to Los Angeles on its Dreamliner 787-9, providing customers with connections to New York City. For reservations and enquiries, call 131 777 or see united.com/au.

STAYING THERE

McCarren Hotel & Pool – In the heart of Williamsburg, the hotel has a saltwater pool, rooftop bar Sheltering Sky and restaurant Oleanders. Rooms from $260. See chelseahotels.com

Nu Hotel – Nestled between Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill and downtown Brooklyn, the Nu has a complimentary breakfast buffet, free use of bikes and a 24-hour fitness centre. Rooms from $217. See nuhotelbrooklyn.com

VISITING THERE

Tom's Restaurant, 2880 Broadway, corner of W112th Street. tomsrestaurant.net

Barry Divola was a guest of United, McCarren Hotel & Pool and Nu Hotel. 

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