Perhaps more than any other type of establishment, the diner has traditionally served as a vital community hub in Brooklyn, uniting neighbors of various ethnicities, ages and economic status around unlimited pots of coffee and all-day eggs. And while many of the borough’s greasy spoons have seen a steady decline in patronage, losing local residents to Wi-Fi touting cafes and scene-y cocktail bars, there’s little mystery as to why Tom’s Restaurant, the 78-year-old Crown Heights institution, has stood the test of time—and much of it has to do with its longtime owner, Gus Vlahavas.
Sadly, the beloved Brooklyn icon passed away at the age of 76 last week, but he’s left behind a legacy that consists of so much more than nostalgic egg creams and lemon-scented ricotta pancakes. His father, Tom, may have first opened the restaurant all the way back in 1936, but Gus became a fundamental part of day-to-day operations starting at the tender age of 9, helping institute a tradition of unfettered, open-armed hospitality that has served as a playbook, of sorts, for future generations of family members that have since taken over. “Does food and ambience matter in a restaurant? Of course it does,” said his nephew Jimmy Kokotas, the current owner of Tom’s. “But knowing your name, who you are, wanting to know how your day is going, how your life is going, remembering what you talked about together the last time you came in; that matters even more.”
“That’s who Gus was, and that’s the atmosphere he created, so that sometimes, walking into Tom’s can feel like walking into an episode of the Andy Griffith Show,” Kokotas added. “He created Mayberry in Prospect Heights.”
And for anyone who remembers the neighborhood in the 60s, that wasn’t always such an easy hat trick to pull off. In fact, one of the most enduring stories regarding the community’s allegiance towards Gus involves the race riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination. While mayhem overtook the streets surrounding Tom’s, customers actually formed a human shield in front of the restaurant, just so it wouldn’t get looted. “It’s hard to boil down what Gus meant to people in just a few words, so it’s the actions, all the intangibles, that paint a picture,” Kokotas said.
“When you consider the immigrant story, coming here from Greece and being an outsider yourself, as Gus was, it teaches you a lesson when you stand on both sides of the fence,” he continued. “You never want to make others feel like they’re unwelcome or wanted because they’re different. So it doesn’t matter if you’re the construction worker digging dirt up the block or the million dollar developer; you’ll always be treated the same at Tom’s.”
And it wasn’t just a history of unilateral acceptance—unmatched generosity also underscored who Gus was. Anyone who’s ever waited on line during the weekend brunch crush can probably attest to that, after bring treated to the equivalent of a full meal, in the form of sausages, oranges, cookies, pancakes and coffee (frequently passed around by local teens in need of a leg up, or elderly neighbors looking to connect). And Gus never required excuses about how or why a customer couldn’t pay—although he frequently received them—his mantra was to give when he could, and let the chips fall where they may.
“He was Prospect Heights, he was Washington Avenue, when it wasn’t desirable to be,” affirmed Kokotas. “Sure he could have decided to keep his business here but go and live somewhere else. Never did. Never cared to. It’s that kind of love for the community, for the neighborhood, for the people in it, that set Gus apart, and that’s why he deserves all the accolades and recognition that he gets.”
“Since his passing, his legacy has been reflected through all of the people at the funeral, at the wake and at the restaurant, sharing their stories and condolences, all the phone calls, the text messages, the Facebook notes, the television crews coming down,” Kokotas continued. “It’s all the good gestures and deeds coming back, which few of us can even hope for. This is the payoff for someone like Gus, to know and feel the reciprocation of a lifetime of love.”