Tommy’s in Hampton – Diner Done Right (Grade: B+)

Tommy’s is the place you go in Hampton Roads for straight-up diner fare. It is not a place on a list of local diners you might think about going. It is not just some place in a “top 10” list. Nor is it a place you mention in the same sentence as IHOP, Waffle House or Denny’s. Tommy’s is simply the diner here. Thinking of Tommy’s among all the other diners around here is pretty much like Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon – everyone is toast before Tommy’s even entertains the thought of breaking a sweat.

Tommy’s is one of Hampton’s few old guard restaurants, slinging grits, greens and grilled cheese sandwiches for more than 25 years. Like virtually every diner in Hampton Roads, Tommy’s is run by a Greek family, the Kamsiuks – not that there’s anything wrong with that, I just find it curious the Greeks have such a lock on waffles in Southeastern Virginia. In case you’re wondering just how much of a local fixture Tommy’s is, just drive by while it’s open, because my money is there will be a line out the door. I can confidently say this because there’s been a line out the door every time I’ve gone there, and I’ve eaten at Tommy’s more than any other restaurant in this entire state.

With all of the Americana kitsch displays at the restaurant, I kind of want to say Tommy’s is like Cracker Barrel. There is, however, one glaring problem with this analogy: Cracker Barrel sucks, and Tommy’s doesn’t. So, Tommy’s has the wood paneling, knick-knacks and 1940s metal signs, but much better food, no stupid gift shop, and none of the creepy racist issues (and lawsuits) that have plagued Cracker Barrel over the years. More importantly, Tommy’s has what Cracker Barrel and all the other chain joints are lacking: soul. And not just because it’s one of the five or so restaurants around here that isn’t in strip mall.

Part of what makes Tommy’s so cool is how diverse everyone in the place is. It’s like someone threw Hampton in a pot and boiled it down to its essence. You’ll see tattooed thug wannabes sitting next wrinkled old white guys scowling at the Daily Press. There will be the Norman Rockwell plaid-shirt family with Dad sporting a John Deere cap, dressed-up older African-American couples doing post-church brunch while gangsta-in-training teens stare glassy-eyed at their iPods, gaggles of twenty-somethings trying to kill their hangovers, and way too many people who really need to hit the gym every now and then. The only demographic missing is the stiff-shirted country-club wannabe crowd. But I never liked them anyway, so no great loss.

You know how the people in coffee commercials lovingly cradle their mugs and soak up the aroma like they’ve gone home for Thanksgiving and just happened to run into their best friend whom they haven’t seen for four years after winning the lottery and getting a new puppy? That’s kind of what happens when you walk into Tommy’s. Going there is like pulling on your favorite pair of boots and forgetting for just a moment about all the things that really, really irritate the living daylights out of you, because you know that right now, for this precise moment, everything is as it always has been and as it always should be.

OK, so the Dalai Lama isn’t hanging out at Tommy’s (as far as I know), and that higher state you think you’re in is probably related more to the pile of bacon you just inhaled than it is to eclipsing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but we’re talking breakfast, and that’s pretty darn close to religion in my book. And with Tommy’s breakfasts, I find salvation in getting “just what I wanted.” Tommy’s isn’t going to serve up Cointreau-soaked stuffed French toast or house-glazed maple bacon or any overwrought infused Hollandaise – they’re just going to kill you with the standards. And I mean “kill” in the best sense of the word.

After a night of imbibing, my go-to is the “combination breakfast,” which is a couple of eggs, meat, potatoes, bread and pancakes. This, my friend, will set you back a whopping $5.15. And we’re not talking measly portions here. Unless you’re an NFL fullback, you won’t leave here hungry. If you are said fullback, throw three more bucks at the affair, and you’ll be square. If you’re an average human being, however, this will be more than an ample plate of food for about the same amount you’d pay for Burger King’s lousy-combo-meal-of-the-day.

For the meat, I tend to stick with the ham. The Virginia ham arrives as a thick “ham steak” slab, while the country ham is a plank of salty and chewy happiness. Given that we’re literally yards away from Smithfield, Virginia, I don’t quite understand why we aren’t seeing thin slices of hyper-salted ham from those yards. But that probably touches on the one (and only) thing that makes me a little uneasy about Tommy’s: the price. Don’t get me wrong: I’m ecstatic about their prices. Yet, sometimes I wonder if they’re just too good. When you’re selling plain omelets at $3.35 and a fried egg with homefries and a biscuit for $2.25 and egg sandwiches (which also include homefries) for $1.95, well … let it suffice to say you’re probably not dining on organic, locally-sourced ingredients.

Like most real-deal diners, Tommy’s menu is gloriously all over the map. Breakfast features range from egg-meat combos and omelets to fruit-topped Belgian waffles, a puzzling array of pancakes (you can get pancakes, hotcakes or short stacks), salmon cakes, scrapple and fifteen different iterations of breakfast sandwiches (only one costs more than $4). Lunches are even more far-flung, with everything from liver and onions and fried pork chops to fresh fried oysters, homemade crab cakes, baby-back ribs, spaghetti and something called a “cheeseburger boat.” Their kids’ menu even has clam strips (someone needs to show me the kid who’s actually ordered this). Naturally, there’s a completely random smattering of Greek-inspired dishes, such as the “Greek hamburger steak,” a Feta cheese omelet and the side of Feta and olives. If that’s not enough, there’s usually a dry-erase board chock full of specials (I’ve seen venison burgers, ostrich burgers and some seriously good homemade sausage all make appearances).

Also in keeping with the diner motif, Tommy’s is pretty much always like Grand Central Station in the middle of rush hour. Waitstaff, busboys, hostesses and management dart between the dining room and the kitchen, swirling around the tightly packed tables while balancing pots of coffee, piled-high breakfast platters and trays of soft drinks. “Honeys,” “sweeties,” and “dears” punctuate the general din, while there’s a constant stream of patrons being seated and getting up to leave in a sort of choreographed chaos. Service is quick, attentive and friendly in an all-business sort of way. Food virtually always hits the table almost disconcertingly soon after being ordered.  There is, however, one exception: the half a fried chicken takes 25 minutes to cook. I finally ordered it for the first time the other day. And it was …

So. Worth. The. Wait.

Now, my family is from the deep south, so I know my way around fried chicken. In fact, I’m pretty sure that not eating fried chicken would’ve gotten me disowned. The last time I made fried chicken, I soaked it overnight in buttermilk, then fried it in a mixture of lard, butter and bacon fat, so it is no small thing when I tell you that Tommy’s fried chicken was the best fried chicken I’ve had in years. Many, many years. I don’t know if they’re brining the chicken or what, but the breast meat was so moist it dripped. The dark meat was a melt-in-your-mouth affair. The skin was beautifully browned, salty and potato-chip crunchy. A 25-minute wait for them to cook it? Shoot – I would drive an hour to get this chicken, and then wait 25 minutes for them to cook it. I literally felt guilty demolishing it plus the two sides for a mere $6.25, because I’ve paid a lot more for fried chicken in higher-end restaurants, and none of it holds a candle to Tommy’s. Even the venerated Roscoe’s chicken and waffles in Hollywood falls short.

The rest of Tommy’s menu is, for the most part, competently done and scratches the itch that brought you to the diner in the first place. I’m not a fan of their homefries, which are shredded potatoes that are thrown on the griddle moist and turned way too often, which means they show up in a mushy drab pile (I like my hash browns to have some crunch to them and a golden crust, but your taste may vary). I recommend asking for the cubed potatoes instead – they aren’t on the menu, but you’ll see lots of folks ordering them. The sausage gravy is too gelatinous and underseasoned for me, and I suggest steering clear of the chipped beef gravy unless you’re into the preserved beef that comes in those little glass jars.

Tommy’s continues Virginia’s rich tradition in the war against butter, so it’s margarine or nothing. And the kitchen does occasionally stumble. One visit saw a burst yolk on an over-easy egg arrive at the table, on another they magically crisped the outside of an omelet while leaving the inside hopelessly underdone. Hey, if you cook enough eggs, stuff like this happens. What’s important is that Tommy’s waitstaff immediately removed the offending items and returned with new plates with their trademark lightening-fast efficiency. You simply can’t ask for much more.

And that’s why I keep going back.

Grade: B+
Address: 3406 West Mercury Blvd., Hampton
Phone: (757) 825-1644
Website: none
Extra info: Open 7 days a week, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.; bring cash – they don’t take plastic (although there is an ATM in the foyer)

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