What is eggs Benedict?
Tom's Restaurant, established 1936, is a cramped, loud, and friendly diner. It's in a part of Prospect Heights that some in the white ghetto of Park Slope have long considered unfriendly: some parts industrial, some parts boarded up, and most parts black. Now it's gentrifying, with Vanderbilt Avenue becoming the new Smith Street. And Tom's has been in the hearts of longtime residents. In the 1968 riots, after Martin Luther King's assassination, black neighbors linked arms to shield it from being torched along with other white-owned businesses.
Gus Vlahadas, bald son of the eponymous restaurant's original owner and now owner himself, and his family work every day except Sunday, when it is closed so Gus can garden. The dark inside room, shaped like a pie wedge, is where it's at. Every inch of the paneled walls are blanketed by framed photographs, reviews, and kitschy memorabilia, including the framed lyrics to Suzanne Vega's song "Tom's Diner." Under the lyrics is scrawled "I came, I saw, I wrote. S. Vega." This has prompted reviews of Tom's Restaurant to say that this is the diner of which she sang, not the one near Columbia University, though Vega's 1991 (eponymous) album explicitly cites Columbia's.
You can also sit in the outer room, a sunnier, enclosed addition with big windows and plastic lawn furniture. But the inside, with its hideous rumpus-room wall paneling and faux brick, is better, featuring so many bunches and garlands of fake flowers, and even a fake apple tree, that even the post-9/11 sprinkling of American flags can't compete. Tom's kitsch is the best defense against the new patriotic mania. The new red, white, and blue flag propped up on the big icemaker, for instance, is hidden behind a motorized all-year-round Santa who rocks back and forth with a lit electric candle, holding it with the same air of proud virility shown by the ceramic rooster next to him. What's a flag against all that?
Tom's version of eggs Benedict ($6), served like all its breakfast entrées all day and on weekends, is more of an open-faced morning egg sandwich. Two squares of good old American cheese top it off. You are warned, upon ordering, that that's what passes here for hollandaise. The fried ham, though sliced thick, is an industrially square serving of spongy spiced ham, the kind with visible chunks of pork that could have come from a whole herd of different pigs. Eggs are too lightly poached. Runny, they are good for mixing with the home fries, which are delicious, gently browned potatoes with just a hint of peppers and onions. English muffins were well toasted.
It's fine for what it is, but to call it a poor cousin to eggs Benedict would be too kind. This is the disturbed mountain cousin with the close-set eyes. More traditional diner dishes, like eggs and hash or burgers or club sandwiches, are better fare. Recently I had good fluffy pancakes spiked with fresh slivers of apple ($4.25). Hot and meaty grilled beef sausage ($1.50), ordered in deference to my cute kosher brunch date, was surprisingly good, a robust alternative to pork.
Tom's Restaurant, with reason, is proud of its cherry-lime rickey ($1.20). The delicious relic of cherry syrup, bubbly seltzer, and a lime quarter, garnished with mint leaves, is served in a tall, fluted, unbreakable soda-fountain glass, and has the perfect balance of sweetness and tartness once you mash up the lime. Watch for seeds, and if you order from Gus's wife, Nonie, beware. She pushes rickey seconds like a crack dealer, which I find funny but visibly annoys some patrons. Refills are free, though the lime and mint are not refreshed. Egg creams ($1.75) come in vanilla or chocolate, but when the syrup for the latter is Fox's U-Bet, that's the only kind to get. With Redi-Whip on top and a rich pocket of syrup on the bottom, it's a fine dessert drink.
Service is accurate and cheerful, from Gus down to the buspeople walking around with giant glass bowls of cookies or orange slices. But it's so excruciatingly slow that I must allot two stars for it, not the default three. Don't go to Tom's Restaurant in a rush, and instead of paying at table, go up front and pay Gus's sweet old mom, Stella, who dresses in grandmotherly Mother Hubbards, and gives you peppermints with your change.
Rest room: Unventilated, aging little room, reminiscent of neglected home basement bathrooms.
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