June 20, 2013 at 12:32 PM ET
In 2007, James Gandolfini made a certain restaurant table at Holsten's Brookdale Confectionery in Bloomfield, N.J., famous when he sat there in his last-ever scene as Tony Soprano in HBO's finale of "The Sopranos." And for a few days as fans and family mourn Gandolfini's untimely death Wednesday, that table will remain marked off, held empty with a "Reserved" sign in the late actor's honor.
"We have a 'Reserved' sign that we put on that table for when we get tours from Manhattan," co-owner Chris Carley told TODAY.com. "It closes off the table so tourists can take pictures. I just decided to close down the table for the next four or five days so people can come in and take pictures. Some have even left bouquets of flowers."
Anyone who wants proof that Gandolfini, who played Tony Soprano on the series for its six-season run, is a beloved figure only needs to step foot in Holsten's, an old-fashioned diner which has been open since 1939: Fans have been flocking in ever since his death was announced. On Wednesday, Carley estimates the eatery saw 40 percent more customers than usual, and he expected those numbers to remain high for some time.
On Wednesday night, he explained, the tables were full of customers talking about the show, about Tony Soprano, about Gandolfini. "It was uplifting in a sense," he said, "but still a sad moment -- you could see people were shaken by his death."
So was Carley, who only learned about it when a news outlet called him on Wednesday. "I was shocked into silence," he said.
He'd met Gandolfini when the show took over the restaurant in 2007 for those scenes, and was already a big fan of the series. "James Gandolfini was a real gentleman," he told TODAY. "When they were filming or rehearsing he was in character and you didn't bother him, but with the cameras off he'd step outside and light a cigar and joke with the crew and people. He took lots of pictures and signed all kinds of things for us." (Many photos now hang in the restaurant.)
Carley said he had some inkling that the show's ending would be memorable from the moment the film crew showed up. "I was like, people are going to remember this always," he said. "(Show creator) David Chase made it with an ending that people would talk about forever."
That said, he's amazed that people think he knows more about the ending (warning: mild cursing) than what actually aired. "People still ask me years later if I know what happened when (the screen) went black," he said. "I don't know! But they're still asking that question."
Some of his fondest memories of the visit, however, unsurprisingly revolve around food. For one thing, Gandolfini was truly a big fan of the onion rings -- they weren't just a prop. And then, late one night on the second night of filming, Gandolfini sprung for sushi -- not made at the restaurant -- for everyone.
"So there we were, eating sushi at 1 in the morning," says Carley. "He really was a nice man. Really nice."