Tom’s Starlight — the reincarnation of Tom’s Diner on Denver’s Colfax Avenue — welcomed patrons back to the building this week, with a fresh look, outdoor patio and menu.
The path to Tom’s Starlight’s opening was marked with years of twists and turns, including a nixed demolition plan, a spot on the National Register of Historic Places and a forced lull during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Wednesday, the Tom’s Starlight signage popped against the autumn sky above the Capitol Hill neighborhood as customers settled in for conversations and cocktails, seated on the orange bar stools inside and at patio tables.
“I’m still pinching myself as I drive in,” said owner and operator Tom Messina in a Tuesday telephone interview. He strolled around his establishment at 601 E. Colfax Ave. on Wednesday, mingling with patrons who started to arrive at 4 p.m.
The former diner’s “old-school” new name was inspired in part by the outdoor space situated “under the stars,” which replaced around 30 parking spots, Messina said. As a man in his golden years, he also described himself as in his “starlight time,” adding further resonance.
Guests from the Tom’s Diner days will still recognize the stone exterior of the Googie‐style building, which dates back to 1967. But, upon entry, they’re now faced with a sleek cocktail bar counter, retro-inspired light fixtures and booth seating, with a dining-area color scheme bursting with orange, purple and green.
Outside on Wednesday evening, several parties of diners were nestled under wooden pergolas as the sun set. Between them and the door leading inside, the patio is dotted with fountains, tiki garden statues, fire pits and greenery.
For Rick Olson, the vibe reminds him of Palm Springs, Calif. “We’re planning vacations to Palm Springs because of this,” he said, sitting at an outdoor table with three other Denverites.
“I like it because it’s almost like a time capsule,” added Patrick Gray, who described the lounge as an “idealized, 1950s highway diner” with the added flair of that stylish, southern California city.
The menu has also received a face-lift. Offerings for drinkers include $11 highballs, wines and draft beer, along with classic and signature cocktails, such as the $18 “No Help Needed” – a tequila drink with a limit of two per customer – and the $14 “Bend & Snap.” Diners can share an appetizer, such as the $18 fried calamari and $18 shrimp cocktail, or eat their fill of the $14 chicken sandwich, $32 pork chop and other heftier food choices.
Denver resident Mario Gustafson, who sipped from a “Radio Freqs” gin cocktail at the outdoor bar, decided to pop by and “see what the possible new ‘it’ bar of Denver would be.”
His verdict? It “probably” will have its moment in the sun, adding that it’s “way bigger” than he initially imagined.
“Some people are really excited about the new venture, and others want to hold onto the past,” Messina said. While the building maintains some of its original feel, “we’ve moved it forward,” he said.
This isn’t the space’s first transformation. Formerly operating as the White Spot restaurant, Messina took the reins in 1999, opening Tom’s Diner – a joint churning out shakes, sandwiches and more around the clock – and buying the property in 2003.
Sixteen years later, that purchase was at the forefront of community drama in 2019 when the Denver government dubbed it “a potentially historic structure due to a request for a certificate of non-historic status, which is often a precursor to demolition,” nonprofit preservation organization Historic Denver reported. With plans in the works to sell the building to Greenwood Village-based Alberta Development Partners for $4.8 million and raze it for an apartment complex, an owner-opposed community push to designate the building as a city landmark ensued.
The solution came in the form of Historic Denver contacting GBX Group LLC, which specializes in buying, preserving, and operating historic real estate. That move led to GBX Group and Messina securing a spot for the building on the National Register of Historic Places, avoiding demolition and eventually leading to Tom’s Starlight.
In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the establishment to shutter, and it suffered acts of vandalism as it sat unused. “Life was put on hold, so that was a bit challenging, for sure,” Messina said.
While the road to reopening had its trials and tribulations, “it’s still sweet,” he added.
Messina took Wednesday on with a team of 25 to 30 people, but hopes to secure about 10 more hires. “That part has been shocking to me,” he said, referring to the restaurant industry’s labor shortage. “Everywhere you look, there’s ‘help wanted’ signs.”
Former Tom’s Diner patrons turned out on opening night to take in the transformation.
Tony Bertke – Tom’s Starlight’s first customer to walk through the door – “was only in the old Tom’s when the sun was coming up.”
He remembers the diner as a spot to eat “comfort” breakfast food while sleepy Denverites traversed Colfax Avenue. Now, times have changed, as he relaxes over a drink, with the moon quickly on its way.
“I’m really excited for it to be in our neighborhood,” said Kathleen Mettel, who sat with Bertke. “It has a good vibe to it.”
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