Thomas Koukoulas has been scrambling around his restaurant since 5 a.m. with the same youthful enthusiasm he had 40 years ago as a child when his father bought the place.
His burnt-orange shirt transforms into a rusty blur as he bursts from the kitchen with his own steaming cup of coffee on a recent Friday afternoon. Speed is of the essence and he has no intention of slowing down.
“I have to keep moving,” says the affable 47-year-old owner of Thomas’s Ham ‘N’ Eggery, a Carle Place staple, which boasts hearty breakfasts served on sizzling skillets instead of traditional plates—a legacy adopted from its original owners, who first opened the diner in 1936.
The area was more grassland back then; big-box retailers were non-existent. A palatial mall with a sprawling food court now sits atop a former airfield and smaller shopping centers occupy the opposite side of the street. There’s also stiff neighborhood competition: Thomas’ fights for empty bellies with two hulking diners with shiny steel exteriors nearby and a Denny’s, which promises an ungodly “Grand Slam” breakfast at cheap prices.
Yet, Koukoulas remains unfazed. Thomas’ offers more than just quality eggs-and-ham. The mom-and-pops diner exudes an all-American vibe that reflects a much simpler time. Its breakfast-heavy menu is replete with a wide range of dishes, from zesty Huevos Rancheros to gratifyingly sweet stuffed French toast, all served deliciously day and night.
Koukoulas’ brother and partner George, who passed away two years ago, developed strong ties to the neighborhood. The outpouring of support—“It was like an hour to get into his wake,” he says—made Koukoulas realize just how beloved the restaurant is.
“It’s not a kind of diner that most people are accustomed to nowadays,” he says, a mix of rock and pop blaring through the speakers. “Those big, huge, metallic factory-type places want to be able to offer you everything from pancakes to Chinese roast pork, but that’s not who we are, that’s not what we do.”
Thomas’s stands out by serving unique dishes such as French toast stuffed with lemon cream cheese, ricotta cheese filling with a blueberry sauce, and another breakfast delight consisting of grilled biscuits layered with homemade chicken sausage, grilled tomato, poached egg and hollandaise sauce.
“I still enjoy doing it, and for me it’s about satisfying the people and giving them a quality product,” beams Koukoulas.
Classic breakfast joints like Thomas’ are few and far between on an island blessed with no shortage of well-regarded modern restaurants. And breakfast mainstays specializing in omelets, pancakes and the like—such as CJ’s Coffee Shop in Rockville Centre, Maureen’s Kitchen in Smithtown, Munday’s in Huntington, Glen’s Dinette in Babylon and Eckhart’s Luncheonette in Westhampton. The aroma of fried eggs and freshly brewed coffee are simply too hard to pass up.
The dining room at popular breakfast spot Maureen’s Kitchen in Smithtown bustles with activity on weekdays nearly as much as it does on weekends, when the line of would-be eaters wind out the door. Besides the mouth-watering dishes, patrons flock here for another reason that sets this place apart: The cows.
Two life-size black-and-white cows graze on the grass in front of the restaurant. Another peeks its head and white snout out from the roof, as a father and daughter gaze upward. Inside, other cows—of all shapes, sizes and colors—play trumpets, juggle and dance ballet. There are cow-spotted cushions, cow table linens and cow mugs.
“Look,” says co-owner Christine Fortier on a recent Wednesday, pointing to the window. “There’s a cow bowling ball!”
“You gotta go with it,” she laughs, explaining that about half the cow trinkets adorning the interior are gifts from customers, purchased all over the world.
The 45-year-old has worked at the bovine-themed restaurant for 28 years, and has owned it with her brother Kevin Dernbach for the past nine when their parents retired. Her sister Doreen Migliore is also on-staff.
“We take pride in what we do,” Fortier says proudly, taking a brief break from the kitchen. “And we’re glad people appreciate the good things that we do.”
Some go-to menu options include her grandmother’s baked oatmeal and the croissant French toast, which vary daily.
“It’s a huge attraction,” Dernbach says of the baked oatmeal. “People try to copy it; they just can’t nail it.”
At CJ’s Coffee Shop in Rockville Centre one recent morning, 56-year-old Chris Lawrence works the register as his brother John mans the grill, preparing egg sandwiches, omelets, home fries and pancakes, among other favorites.
Lawrence, a retired NYPD officer, and his wife Lori, have owned the cozy shop for 24 years.
“It feels like 124 years,” laughs Lawrence, who opens the doors at 5:30 a.m. daily and occasionally finds customers knocking on the window before he gets in.
Undoubtedly, the breakfast business can be grueling. Lawrence is embarrassed to say what time he went to bed the previous night—“I fell asleep in the middle of the [Miami] Heat game,” he admits—but he has no problem finding energy once he gets to CJ’s.
Breakfast is “something we love to do,” he says, adding, “I think it’s an old-school neighborhood-type of eatery.”
Lawrence, like Koukoulas and Fortier, has developed a loyal customer base—younger clientele admittedly picking up a bite to eat at on their way back from college before even stopping home.
“I gotta find out where they [go to school] so I can open there,” he jokes.
But his hometown has treated him just right. A steady stream of customers pours into the diminutive shop all day long, picking up CJ’s top-notch coffee and sandwiches to go. The Blue Plate Special, “a throwback,” says Lawrence—which consists of potatoes, vegetables, meat, soup and comes with a drink—is a crowd-pleaser. He also offers French toast, oatmeal, cereal and a variety of specialty omelets.
He sums up CJ’s success in simple terms: “People just like a neighborhood family spot where they know they can get a good breakfast.”