“Gus is here today; you always feel he is around,” said former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz of the late Gus Vlahavas, owner of Tom’s Diner. Markowitz was a regular at the diner and soon became a friend of Gus. “He had that special personality that once you’ve met him, you neva fahgetabouthim!”
Gus Vlahavas was a beloved figure in the Prospect Heights community. And Sunday afternoon, friends, his extended family– including his wife Nonie– local residents and key community leaders, including City Councilmember Laurie Cumbo, Markowitz and members of Community Board 8, gathered at Sterling Pl. and Washington Ave. in Prospects Heights to witness the unveiling of the official street co-naming in his honor: “Gus Vlahavas Place.”
“This restaurant Tom’s helped spur the renaissance that Brooklyn now experiences, because Gus made everyone feel comfortable… I have no idea how many people got married from meeting here,” said Markowitz to a round of laughter and nodding heads. “In between bringing out the food, he would introduce people to each other in line. He would want people to eat and get to know each other.”
It’s fair to say that the name “Tom’s Diner” is ubiquitous throughout most of Central Brooklyn– not only for its delicious food and homespun feel, but also and equally so for its beloved owner Gus, who passed away in November, 2014, at the age of 76. Gus began working at Tom’s Diner when he was nine years old and continued working for the restaurant for 60 years until his retirement in 2009.
He loved his customers, and the customers loved him. He spoke to everyone, shared stories of when Jackie Robinson, a Bed-Stuy resident, and other members of the Brooklyn Dodgers would come in regularly for hamburgers and frosties. His most important priority was making sure all of his customers felt comfortable and had a good meal.
Jimmy Kokotas, Gus’s nephew and the third generation running Tom’s Diner, said he reached out to City Councilmember Cumbo and began looking into the possibility of co-naming the street in his uncle’s honor, soon after Gus’s passing, almost a year ago.
“I spoke to Councilmember Cumbo, the community board, the block association and the mayor’s office,” said Kokotas. “There were enough people in the mayor’s office and enough people in this community that realized the importance that Gus played to Prospect Heights and to Washington Avenue. So it really was a slam dunk.”
On any given day, there was (and still is) a line wrapped around the corner of people waiting to get into Tom’s. Cumbo said, it is because they’re about family, homestyle cooking, and customers always felt loved and cared for.
“People come here because Gus was the community,” said Cumbo. “He was here at a time when a lot of people didn’t want to be here. He is one of those staples that helped build Brooklyn. People come not only for the great food, but for the opportunity to sit, eat and be welcome. It’s a foundation built on love, energy, of family sacrifice and people coming together.
“And it also didn’t hurt to have a hit song about your restaurant,” she said, referring to the 1987 smash hit, “Tom’s Diner,” by Suzanne Vega.
The diner has a long history in the neighborhood and has seen several generations come… and go. As the neighborhood undergoes another fast change, where does Kokotas see Tom’s in the next few years?
“I will be here as long as God and his family allows me to be here,” said Kokotas. “I think there’s some great things happening in the neighborhood right now. But I do feel bad, though, because with the gentrification, a lot of the old-timers that have been here, it’s becoming a lot more expensive for them.
“But we will not change; we’re not going to start serving fancy-schmancy food just because there are a lot of millionaires buying apartments in the neighborhood. We’re about old-school comfort food. That’s what we’ve always been. That’s what we’ll continue to be.”