By Douglas Martin
On Saturday mornings, Tom’s restaurant in Brooklyn is so popular that people line up outside just to be served old-fashioned diner cuisine like chocolate egg creams and all manner of pancakes. It has been that way for years, and until the owner, Gus Vlahavas, died this month at 76, the patrons’ patience was rewarded with the free coffee, cookies, sausage bits and orange slices he handed out while they waited.
Mr. Vlahavas started working at Tom’s, which opened as an ice-cream parlor under a different name in 1936, when he was 9 years old. He stayed for more than 60 years, lovingly molding it into a homey Brooklyn family institution before retiring in 2009.
He died of respiratory complications on Nov. 4 at Columbia University Medical Center in Manhattan, his daughter, Beth Vlahavas, said.
Changelessness was the stock in trade at Tom’s, right down to the décor, including a half-dozen American flags and bright plastic flowers on the tables. It has had only one address since it was opened by Mr. Vlahavas’s paternal grandfather: 782 Washington Avenue.
Mr. Vlahavas (pronounced vlah-HAHV-as) would reminisce about players for the Brooklyn Dodgers wandering in from nearby Ebbets Field for ice cream in the 1940s and ’50s. Even as the neighborhood, Prospect Heights, sank into drug-drenched dereliction in the ’70s, the wall display of photographs of new babies kept growing. The strains of the Dorsey brothers and Count Basie continue to be heard, now by chauffeurs of some very large strollers and hipsters in fedoras.
Mr. Vlahavas lived for Tom’s, almost literally so. To make sure he arrived promptly at 5 a.m. to fire up the grill, he bought a brownstone around the corner at a time when few people were moving into the neighborhood. His dedication was reciprocated by the loyalty of his neighbors, who by the 1960s were mainly blacks from the American South and the Caribbean, who replaced the Irish, Italians and Jews. During the blackout of 1965, when rioting erupted, local people formed a human chain to protect Tom’s.
“All my neighbors, my black American friends, they all held hands around the store, 70 of them,” Mr. Vlahavas told The Daily News in 2009. “It made me feel terrific because these people were very thoughtful and kind enough to protect me,” he continued. “This doesn’t happen every day in anyone’s life.”
The Vlahavas family’s Brooklyn story began in the first decade of the 20th century, when Mr. Vlahavas’s grandfather, Constantin Vlahavas, emigrated from Greece and settled in the borough. When he set up his ice cream shop in 1936, he named it Lewnes, a name he thought would appeal to Irish customers.
His grandson and namesake Constantin Vlahavas, who would be known as Gus in America, was born on Oct. 24, 1938, to Themistocle and Stella Vlahavas in the town of Nafpaktos, in western Greece. Soon afterward, Themistocle, who became known as Tom in Brooklyn, joined his father there. World War II and the ensuing Greek civil war prevented young Gus and his mother from joining him until 1947.
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With the family reunited in Brooklyn, 9-year-old Gus immediately began working at the restaurant. By then his grandfather had renamed it Tom’s, to honor his son’s World War II heroics in the Philippines, where he had been wounded.
Gus graduated from Brooklyn College with a major in history, a subject he briefly taught at Midwood High School in Brooklyn. It turned out that he preferred to work at Tom’s, and except for serving in the Army as a cook in the early 1960s, he stayed for good. While his father cooked, Gus chatted with customers and ran the business.
His endless repository of stories included serving Jackie Robinson and his Dodger teammates “frosties,” a heap of homemade ice cream mixed with a thimbleful of milk (available in chocolate, vanilla and strawberry). “In here, Jackie could sit wherever he wanted,” Mr. Vlahavas told The New York Times in 1999, acknowledging the racial discrimination Robinson faced elsewhere.
There were tough times when some storefronts on Washington Avenue were boarded over. In 1990, a former state senator, Vander L. Beatty, who had come to Tom’s the previous day, was shot and killed in his campaign headquarters across the street. But somehow the market for cherry-lime rickeys, homemade pies and extravagantly caloric Belgian waffle sundaes remained.
And Mr. Vlahavas never stopped smiling, kissing babies and giving children 50-cent pieces, which he said was an old Greek custom. He hired a homeless bottle collector as a deliveryman, and it worked out nicely.
Mr. Vlahavas’s wife of 50 years, the former Pheoni Rougas, who was known as Nonie and who remembered how everyone took their coffee, survives him. So does his mother, who at 93 still works the cash register and lives over the store. Besides the two women and his daughter, he is also survived by his sons, Thomas and Samuel; his brother, Angelo; and three grandchildren.
Of Mr. Vlahavas’s children, only Beth was interested in running the restaurant, a proposal her father vetoed because he thought it would take her away from her three children, she said. Since 2009, his nephew Jim Kokotas has been in charge. In 2012 he opened a second Tom’s restaurant, on the Coney Island boardwalk.
Mr. Vlahavas, who last lived with his daughter in Smithtown, on Long Island, often dropped by the Washington Avenue location to spin tales with friends.
He was especially pleased that the children, grandchildren and even a few great-grandchildren of his old-time customers returned to Tom’s. In 1990, he told The Times that he had recently spotted an oddly familiar man pacing in front of the restaurant. He looked like an adult version of a boy who had left the neighborhood more than 30 years ago after his father, a police detective, was killed.
Mr. Vlahavas rushed outside and realized his hunch was on the mark.
“Hello, Tommy Lynch,” he said. Mr. Lynch burst into happy tears.