Shalom Life | July 01, 2014

Coffee, Food, Yada Yada Yada: Interview with the Creators of ‘Tom’s Restaurant: A Documentary About Everything"

Shalom Life chats with the makers of the doc about the famous Seinfeld diner

By: Zak Edwards

Published: November 14th, 2013 in News » World

Let me ask you a question: Do you recognize this?

Of course you do! It’s in nearly every episode of Seinfeld, essential television for anyone (check our list of the best Seinfeld episodes here), but do you know anything about it? What’s good on the menu? What about its actual name?

Well, now’s your chance to learn about New York City’s worst kept secret with Tom’s Restaurant: A Documentary About Nothing Everything, looking at the restaurant for its customers and cultural significance beyond the famous show and a Suzanne Vega song.

The restaurant has been a staple for Columbia University students and faculty for years, and Jesse McDowell and Gian Franco Morini felt it was time the landmark diner was given its own time in the spotlight outside its Seinfeld and musical origins. President Obama ate there during his undergraduate days, for example, while his running opponent John McCain planned part of his campaign strategy while sipping on their $1 coffee.

Tom’s, it seems, is more than just a sign.

Shalom Life interviewed McDowell and Morini, producer and director respectively, of Tom’s Restaurant via email on their project and, of course, what makes Tom’s such an essential staple of New York Americana.

Shalom Life (SL): So what inspired you to do the project?

Gian Franco Morini (GFM): I love New York, and Jerry Seinfeld is the quintessential New Yorker. The series is a guide on how to be a New Yorker. I’ve always been fascinated by diners, since I find them a characteristic of American life. When I first moved to NYC five years ago and I passed in front of Tom’s, I knew I had to do something with it. The more I started researching, the more I knew I wanted to make this film.

Jesse McDowell (JM): Gian Franco had directed a film a few years ago that I was an actor in. The film was so clever and shot so well. His directorial eye and talent were very apparent. So, when I decided that I wanted to produce a film he was the first person I wanted to collaborate with. Thankfully, he was up for anything. He suggested this idea he had on doing a documentary about Tom’s Restaurant. It was perfect!

SL: What kind of impact do you think the restaurant has had on New York culture?

GFM: Tom’s Restaurant has been around for more than half a century as an “incubator” for great ideas. It’s almost amazing stopping and analyzing all the different great ideas and thoughts that popped in the mind of patrons while they were eating: [members of] NASA, Columbia, Seinfeld….. how many brilliant minds graced these tables. How many projects kick started here…

JM: Cornel West says it best, stating that Tom’s is a melting pot of young and old, rich and poor, all ethnicities, cultures, and sexualities. He says it in the film’s trailer. The diner’s influence is simply that, when you eat there, you are what’s most important, not your outfit or position in society. When it all boils down to it, it’s just a diner where everyone drinks the same $1 cup of coffee.

SL: Is it a tourist destination? The trailer seems to heavily feature New Yorkers more than outsiders, how do you and other patrons feel about its iconic status from Suzanne Vega’s song and, of course, Seinfeld?

GFM: The wonderful thing about Tom’s is that you can find a little bit of everything. Regulars from the neighbourhood, students and faculty from Columbia and obviously a lot of tourists, that come to snap a shot in front of the famous location. Seinfeld and Suzanne Vega are loved by everybody who comes in this place. They are family in a way. That part of family that maybe you never see now, but that you know are there for you. At the same time, the customers who used to come way before the Seinfeld days have this “hipster” attitude of pointing out: I was here before the Seinfeld days. As to say: I discovered the value of this place before popular culture acknowledged it on television.

JM: We shot hours and hours of footage there and there were always people – tourists and resident New Yorkers – taking photos outside. Most people we interviewed are the regulars who have a history pre-Suzanne and Seinfeld with Tom’s. I think it’s amazing how fame just kept finding this one place. Tom’s didn’t go searching for it. The restaurant, its employees, and clientèle simply represent New York City.

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