July 5 marks the 30th anniversary of the premiere of Seinfeld, one of the most popular and influential sitcoms in history and the New York-iest show of all time. In honor of the occasion, we caught up with some real New Yorkers whose lives were forever changed by their association with the series.
Our first stop on one sunny late-June morning was Tom’s Restaurant. The long-standing Upper West Side diner, owned for decades by the same Greek-American family, has achieved national fame as the facade to the fictitious Monk’s Café. (The interior of Monk’s was a Los Angeles soundstage). Tom’s has just one menu item that references the show. It’s a seasonal dish, only available in the summer. Its name: Jerry’s Big Salad.
Those who’ve watched a lot of Seinfeld might wonder why, if Tom’s was going to append a character’s name to a “Big Salad” of any kind, they wouldn’t go with Elaine (who loved to eat it) or George (who desperately wanted credit for buying it). One possible explanation: owner Mike Zoulis has only seen the show once. (“Shhh,” he says.)
“I never had time to watch the show,” explains Zoulis, who says he’s worked at Tom’s since 1978 and became an owner in 1998. “I just watched it once when they told me that sign was on the show. So I put it on and I saw. I was amazed.” When Zoulis was younger, he watched comedies like Laverne & Shirley and Happy Days—but as an adult, he’s had a restaurant to run.
Zoulis is happy to see people who come from all over the world pay tribute to Seinfeld. “Sometimes they ask me to take a few pictures with them,” he says of the fans. “They ask me where [the characters] sat.” And, while the actors generally shot their scenes thousands of miles away, Jerry and Jason Alexander did sit in one of Tom’s vinyl booths for a Super Bowl–commercial version of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
Nevertheless, first and foremost, Tom's is a functioning diner. “It’s been here before Seinfeld,” Zoulis says, “and hopefully it’s gonna be here after all this stuff. We’re a small business, family owned. It’s been like that all this time.”
Kenny Kramer, who gave Seinfeld’s Cosmo Kramer his surname, takes a more deliberate approach to serving the Seinfeld audience. For more than two decades, he’s run Kramer’s Reality Tour, during which he offers a peek into his life as Larry David’s neighbor at the Manhattan Plaza apartment complex and visits Tom’s Restaurant and other sites that appeared on the show or inspired it.
Kramer is pleased with how Seinfeld has impacted his life. “I went from an obscure stand-up comedian to an international icon within a year,” he says, “so it worked out pretty good.”
Still, he takes a moment to clear up what he sees as a misconception: “I want to defend myself as a neighbor, because the characterization of Kramer is that he’s always barging in at inopportune times and taking food, and the truth is it was absolutely not like that. It was the opposite. Larry never had any food in his house. It was like takeout and order in—or come into Kramer’s house, because I had lots of food in my house. I was a single parent, so I always had several flavors of ice cream, fresh fruit and all kinds of snacks and treats. So Larry would come in all the time to get something to eat. But he insisted that he had to pay for everything he took or he wouldn’t feel comfortable. He would keep a list on an index card with a refrigerator magnet, and whenever he filled up the index card I’d come in and there would be like $12 on the kitchen counter and a blank index card on the refrigerator.”
“I went from an obscure stand-up comedian to an international icon within a year,” says Kenny Kramer, “so it worked out pretty good.”
Years later, Kramer says, that ended up as a plot in the Seinfeld episode “The Seven.” But in the TV version, Kramer was the one borrowing the food instead of providing it.
One NYC institution less worried about misconceptions from the show is H&H Bagels. The company’s current CEO, Jay Rushin, says it was never a concern that Kramer engaged in some extremely unhygienic bagel-production practices in the episode “The Strike.” “It was just a hilarious episode,” he says, recognizing that a reasonable viewer would not assume the over-the-top scene represented the place’s actual bagel-preparation practices. (Note that the current H&H Bagels is a distant relative of the long-running original.)
Similarly, Zoulis says he never even thought to ask what would happen in the kitchen at Monk’s on Seinfeld—and it’s a good thing, because it’s a place where Jerry and George have come to accept that a certain chef is likely to drop rubber bands into their soup (also in “The Strike,” which was evidently not a banner episode for food safety). He understood that the publicity would far outweigh anything else.
“Back then,” he says, “you just signed a release. You were happy if it worked out. Now it turns out the show is very famous.”
Finally, this fall, New York City will be home to “The Seinfeld Experience,” run by the company Superfly. What will The Seinfeld Experience entail? According to the press release we received, it’ll be in Gramercy and include “costumes, memorabilia and set re-creations” along with props and, naturally, a store.
It’s the polar opposite of Tom’s Restaurant in terms of Seinfeld-related NYC attractions—a re-creation solely designed to appeal to Seinfeld fans. But we’re likely to check it out. And take it from Jerry in the press release: “All I can say is, in the general context of the world we live in, this now seems completely normal.”