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Sometimes a restaurant’s sign will evoke the memory of a great chicken parm. Other times, it could be a warm reminder of a friend’s birthday party, a cousin’s wedding — maybe even an embarrassing Hanukkah brunch (sorry, Mom).
But it’s only on the rarest, most meaningful of occasions that a mere look at a restaurant’s sign will conjure up perhaps the most powerful image of all: four adult friends sitting at a booth agreeing to have a contest to see who can go the longest without masturbating.
This, of course, is the case with Monk’s Café, an iconic location in a little show called Seinfeld — heard of it? One look at a shot of those neon letters will cue a slap bass line in the head of practically anyone with a television and a sense of humor.
But what many Festivus observers may not know is that the external shot of Monk’s Café isn’t just a ’90s set piece. It’s actually Tom’s Restaurant, and it existed long before that waitress ever flirted with George.
Located at the corner of Broadway and 112th Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Tom’s Restaurant opened in the late 1940s and is still serving Greek American diner fare today. If the No. 1 train is too much hassle, it’s even available on Uber Eats for delivery — perhaps by car, though probably sans the comedians and the coffee.
The location plants it firmly near the Barnard College and Columbia University campuses, making it a common stomping grounds for some pretty good company in addition to the Seinfeld gang. It’s been noted that during the ’80s, some guy by the name of Barack Obama would visit the restaurant from time to time, long before he and Jerry ever met.
Another nearby student who spent some time at the place was one Suzanne Vega, a musician who picked a rather unconventional muse. That muse? Tom’s Restaurant.
In 1984, Vega first released the track “Tom’s Diner” in the publication/record album Fast Folk Musical Magazine before finally releasing it on her own album Solitude Standing in 1987. The track did fairly well but didn’t really get its soup until three years later, when a duo called DNA released a remix, skyrocketing the song to number one in six countries while also reaching number five in the U.S.
But before the hit show and the hit record, Tom’s Restaurant had its performance debut on a different program entirely.
In 1978, it appeared in an episode of The Bionic Woman — we wish there was a bionic poetic parallel to Vega’s lyric in her song: “There’s a woman on the outside.” But there's not. In lieu of that, please enjoy The Bionic Woman jumping out of a helicopter to fight Bigfoot.
And all of this comes with a side of fries: in 2014, the restaurant appeared in a Super Bowl commercial with Jerry, George, and … oh. Hello, Newman.
So yes, it’s obvious Tom’s Restaurant has a history as rich as the celebrities who have profited from it. Well … maybe not quite as rich, but you know, yada yada yada.
Anyway, too far from New York to visit? Well, even though Tom’s started in the ’40s, it’s a part of the 21st century now — and just like every other Manhattan restaurant, boutique, bank, and public restroom, it’s got merch available for purchase online. But if you want to go close-talk with the sign in person, make sure to bring green; it’s cash only with an ATM on site.
And if you’re sitting for a meal, remember Jerry’s wise words and budget time wisely: “Sex, that’s meaningless. I can understand that. But dinner, that’s heavy. That’s like an hour.”
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Top Image: Wikimedia Commons, Rick Dikeman (en:User:Rdikeman)