On Saturday, May 21, relatives, friends, neighbors and local community leaders joined to honor and celebrate Gus Vlahavas, owner of the legendary Tom's Restaurant, on the occasion of his retirement. Official festivities began at 11 am with a proclamation from City Council Member Letitia James and words from Borough President Marty Markowitz, as well as music and entertainment from the Brooklyn Steppers Marching Band and the Noel Pointer Foundation's Children's Band.
After over sixty years of service at Tom's Restaurant, Gus will be leaving Brooklyn to move to Colorado with his wife Nonie. Gus first started working at the family restaurant at the age of 9, when he arrived in Brooklyn from Greece. When his father passed the torch to him in the 1970's, it gained international attention and became one of the must-sees for tourists visiting Brooklyn. Like the restaurant itself, Gus has been an anchor of the Prospect Heights community, and is known for his charm, his warmth and his decency. The tribute was a small recognition of the role he played in the neighborhood and in the lives of of so many of his beloved patrons. Read on to hear more about Gus's life story.
When: Saturday May 21: 10:3o AM - 1:30 pm, with Letitia James and Marty Markowitz speaking at 11:00AM
Where: Corner of Sterling Place and Washington Avenue
Constantine (Gus) Vlahavas: A Demotic Biography
by Avi Sharon
Constantine Vlahavas was born on October 24, 1938, towards the west of Greece, in the town of Nafpaktos. Soon afterward his father (Tom Vlahavas) would emigrate to the US, where his grandfather had settled as something of a pioneer as early as 1904 (living at Nostrand and Fulton). Sadly, wife (Stella—the once ever present "Yia Yia" or grandmother you find at the cash register) and son would have to endure the second world war and its aftermath before they could join husband and father.
That war came to Greece first in the form of Mussolini’s Italian troops, in what was known as the Albanian campaign. Greece shone in that affair, and was one of the first and only countries to repulse an Axis invasion. But the Germans followed, and Greece suffered occupation throughout the war, and its people endured both extreme privation and ill treatment throughout. Sadly, the end of the war did not mean the end of slaughter and suffering for the Greeks, as east and west used the country as a pawn in their larger post-war chess game. The Truman doctrine had its first empirical application in Greece, where communist militias roamed the countryside and left the country torn and bloodied until 1947. It was in that year, at 9 years of age, that Constantine would travel with his mother to New York, to become Gus, and to take his place at the family restaurant.
The restaurant began its life in 1936 as Lewnes, named to resonate with the largely Irish community where it was set. At first just an ice cream parlor, Lewnes evolved first into a luncheonette, and then, with the safe return of Gus’ father Tom from his service in the Philippines, evolved once more, into Tom’s. Gus finished school and was drafted around 1960 (presumably for the Bay of Pigs invasion). He never saw action but was stationed in Colorado Springs, where saw action of a different sort: it was there he met Nonie, his future wife, whose family had settled amid a Greek community in Pueblo Colorado. They met at St. John’s (or Ioannis) church in Colorado, and it is to Colorado that they will soon depart again.
One of the defining moments of the restaurant, and of Brooklyn, were the disruptions that followed on the assassination of Martin Luther King, on April 4, 1968. Gus recalled that on that or the following day there was news of looting and disturbances throughout the area. But that around 5:00 pm that day, a human chain was formed around the restaurant, with patrons of all colors locking hands or elbows, to pre-empt any harm would be visited on that warm, neighborhood establishment. In the wake of the riots, the neighborhood turned for the worse—many other shops moved away, along with their clientele. But Tom’s remained, and changed with its surroundings.
Then, in the 1970s, Gus noticed a new patron who showed up several days in a row, a reporter for the Daily News, who wanted to write up the restaurant for the paper. Since then the popularity of the restaurant grew well beyond the ambit of the locals who always loved the atmosphere, the food, and the local color. And today, with the Brooklyn renaissance continuing in full swing, we should acknowledge the role of Gus and the restaurant as an anchor for the neighborhood and the new Brooklyn ship of state.
It’s true that this Tom’s is not the inspiration of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner.” But it IS the site of the diner in Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel Middlesex. And when Eugenides was asked to be interviewed, the reporter asked to meet him at the Waldorf. Eugenides said no, meet me at Tom’s.
Gus was involved in the restaurant most of his life, though he only ran it himself for the last 25 or so years. It already had much of its history when he took it over—the décor, the classic coca cola sign, the lime rickey and egg cream. But Gus gave the restaurant its service ethos, its sensibility and its human charm. This tribute is but a small token of recognition for the role he played in the neighborhood and in the lunchtime (or brunchtime) lives of so many of his beloved patrons. We will miss you, Gus.