The Many Tales of Tom’s
Following the money — er, french fry — trail: a restaurant’s connection to a sitcom, outer space, hit music, and sports
In real life, Tom’s Restaurant sits inconspicuously on West 112th Street & Broadway in New York City’s Morningside Heights neighborhood. It’s been around since the 1940s, and the decor shows it: on the outside, an old-timey, neon-red sign flashes TOM’S RESTAURANT in zingy type, and inside, it’s got the same mahogany-and-red-leather booths it’s had for decades.
But most New Yorkers — and most people — know Tom’s best from the 1990s sitcom Seinfeld. Tom’s Restaurant serves as the exterior for the gang’s favorite hangout, Monk’s Cafe (although the interiors are nothing alike). If you look closely, you can see students in Columbia sweatshirts passing by in some of the establishing shots. It’s still a bit of a tourist attraction these days, twenty-odd years later — a few years ago, the owners put up dividers with Jerry — Elaine — George — Kramer emblazoned on them. Thanks to that Seinfeld shot, Eater called Tom’s, “the most famous [diner] since Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.” Business Insider reports that, even today, “72.36% of Tom’s Restaurant’s TripAdvisor reviews mention ‘Seinfeld.’”
In my college days, however, Tom’s was best known to me as a place where students gathered for obscenely large orders of fries and omelets long after the dining halls closed. Located just two blocks down from Columbia University, it’s been an unofficial part of the campus for years, as much a campus institution as the massive Butler and Low Libraries. Alum Barack Obama allegedly liked to eat at Tom’s, as did Obama’s 2008 presidential election opponent, Senator John McCain, whose daughter graduated from Columbia in 2007.
What few know is that the floor above Tom’s Restaurant is part of Columbia. It’s known as Armstrong Hall — “Armstrong” because it houses the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. In the past, research conducted there has led to the development of the idea of tectonic plate movement, the concept of black holes, and the COBE satellite which launched in 1989 and provided key support for the big bang theory. (John Mather, who received the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the satellite, began working on the idea while a post-doc at Goddard in the 1970s). Now, scientists at Goddard are mostly focused on climate change research, working in conjunction with Columbia’s Earth Institute to find solutions to one of the most pressing issues of the day.
Tom’s was also the inspiration for the 1990 Suzanne Vega/DNA hit “Tom’s Diner.” First released by Vega alone in 1987, the song was remixed three years later by DNA, a British electro-pop/“trip hop” duo from Bath, England. The DNA remix ended up becoming a chart-topper.
Vega reportedly wrote the lyrics to “Tom’s Diner” while she was a student at Barnard College, the women’s college of Columbia University, in the early ’80s (Columbia didn’t admit women until 1983, becoming the last Ivy League school to do so). The song recounts a patron’s experience drinking a cup of coffee at the counter of Tom’s, and includes a number of references to local landmarks, including the bells of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the largest Anglican church in the United States. Listen closely and you can hear the Cathedral bells in the background two-thirds of the way through the song. (St. John the Divine is just a few blocks away from Tom’s Diner, and well worth a visit if you’re ever in the neighborhood — the architecture, though unfinished, is stunning.)
Two and a half decades later, part of “Tom’s Diner” — the doot doo doo-doo doot doo doo-doo that plays behind Vega’s vocals in the DNA remix — was sampled during the introductory bars of “Centuries,” a 2014 single by American pop rock band Fall Out Boy. (Try playing both tracks simultaneously — it’s absurdly clear that both songs use the same basic line.) “Centuries” became a hit and was even used by ESPN as their sports coverage theme.
So there you go. A restaurant connected to a university, the presidential election of 2008, a TV show, NASA, the big bang theory, the Nobel Prize, a 1990 hit, a 2014 hit, and ESPN. What more could you ask of a simple diner? (Perhaps an order of fries?? Seriously, Tom’s has the best fries.)
The Wikipedia pages for today’s topic were remarkably helpful, and make up the bulk of my sources. Nevertheless, I also recommend checking out:
- “Tom’s Restaurant: A Documentary About Everything is Mostly About Nothing” by Joshua David Stein (Eater, October 22, 2014)
- “Nighthawks” (Art Institute of Chicago)
- NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (NASA)
- About Tom’s Restaurant (Tom’s Restaurant)
- “10 Obscure Places in the US That Were Made Famous by Movies and TV Shows” by Zoë Ettinger (Business Insider, March 12, 2020)
Alllll the Wikipedia pages:
And if you ever find yourself near W 116th Street & Broadway, ask a Columbia student about the lore surrounding Tom’s! I guarantee you’ll get an entertaining response.