Tom's Restaurant on a brisk fall night in October, 2006. (T. Rinaldi)
The lettering for TOM'S is slightly different from that for RESTAURANT. (T. Rinaldi)
Then there's the sign's hand-painted finish. By 1957, hand-painted neon signs were pretty much a thing of the past in New York. More likely, this would have had faces of porcelain enameled steel, which could have been painted over later to cover-up a name change. And finally, there is a tell-tale seam in the sheet metal sign face between TOM'S and RESTAURANT – could it be that the part reading COLUMBIA was cut-off and replaced with new sheet metal, and then the whole thing painted in the blue-and-white colors of Columbia University? The answer to this mystery, I hoped, lay with this man Paul.
The corner of Broadway and West 112th Street, October 12, 2006. (T. Rinaldi)
At length, the day came. I called ahead to be sure he would be working. A few hours later I found him there, stationed at the cash register. I introduced myself and explained my bizarre cause. The man was friendly and gregarious, as Tom's staff usually are. But it soon became clear that he couldn't tell me anything about the sign. He had been there a long time, he said, but the sign was there longer.
Two views of Tom's, September 20, 2010. (T. Rinaldi)
For now, at least, the secret of Tom's neon is safe. As far as most of the world is concerned, however, this whole question is of marginal significance, literally: throughout its tenure on "Seinfeld", the TOM'S portion of the sign was neatly cropped out of view, and the place was known to viewers as the fictitious "Monk's Coffee Shop". Out of sight, out of memory.
As seen on TV: Tom's on "Seinfeld," 1989-1998. ("Seinfeld")
* The names have been changed to protect the innocent.