November 10, 2009

Tom's Restaurant: MIKE ZOULIS

“There’s always been a funny side to Tom’s,” says Mike Zoulis, owner and manager of Morningside Heights staple, Tom’s Restaurant, favorite to the Seinfeld cast, Columbia students, and Upper West Siders alike. Having grown up in nearby Washington Heights, Mike was brought into the business 30 years ago by his father, who was in partnership with the original Greek founder.

Despite the morning rush, Mike was willing to sit with us and chat over a cup of coffee.

How and when did you begin at Tom's? 
It was in the family. My father was involved with Tom’s, and after dealing with the corporate world for a while, I decided to give it a try. 

Do you watch Seinfeld? Who's your favorite character? 
I watch the reruns. I do find it very funny. The characters all have their moments. Elaine—I like her, I like her timing.

Has the Seinfeld cast dined at Tom's before? 
I think they’ve all been here at one time or another. I’ve only met Jerry and Kramer. 

It is widely understood by Columbia students that Tom's is the late-night food destination. How does that make you feel? 
The thing is that Tom’s has been a mainstay in the community for over 60 years, and we’ve been dealing with the late-night crowd for that long. We used to have a lot more drunks when the alcohol ban was less strict and the West End Café was open. We’ve catered to Columbia for a long time. The restaurant lights up the block. People feel safe in our little oasis. 

If you were a food, what would you be? 
A steak sandwich. 

What is the least commonly ordered item on the menu? 
We’ve changed our menu quite a bit to try to avoid having an item like that. Something we used to serve is chicken croquettes—those stuffed things—I don’t know how people eat them. 

The best item on the menu? 
For breakfast, I would say the homemade pancakes that we make from scratch with real buttermilk. For dinner, I think our burgers and fries are great—we buy the same fries as McDonald’s and our meat is the best in the city. 

What is best part of your job? 
When customers come up and thank us for doing a nice job, appreciating what we do. There are always pros and cons when you’re dealing with personal tastes—we’ve been called a greasy spoon, a fast-food dump, this and that. What some people don’t understand is that we’re a diner. We try to serve food as fast as possible because a lot of people have to get back to work or get back to studying. Everything we serve is fresh, we use the best ingredients; our meats are the same that they use in the best restaurants in the city. 

Can you tell a person's character by the way they take their eggs? 
Sometimes. I think it’s easier to tell a person’s character by the way they place their order and how they talk to the server. 

What is your favorite thing about diners in NYC? 
The hours. If you know where you are, you can find food in 24 hours. New York is unique for that. 

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