Tom’s Starlight

601 E. Colfax Ave.
The Draw: A groovy, colorful setting for classic American dishes and inventive cocktails
The Drawback: Not all entrées are worth their steep price tags
Noise Level: Low
Don’t Miss: Weekend brunch; burger sliders; rotating flatbreads

To fully appreciate what Tom’s Starlight is, you have to forget what Tom’s Diner was. At the new iteration of the Capitol Hill institution, you can’t expect a menu full of breakfast options, blue-plate specials, or Buffalo wings at 3 a.m. The new Tom’s only does brunch on the weekends, and it closes in reasonable fashion sometime between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m., depending on the night.

If you missed the will-they-or-won’t-they-demolish-it drama that ultimately turned Tom’s Diner into Tom’s Starlight, the quick version is this: In 2019, owner Tom Messina, who wanted to retire, tried to sell his East Colfax property to housing developers. But local architecture buffs weren’t excited about the potential razing of the Googie-style building, one of the city’s best examples of the Space Age-y design popular from the 1950s to the early 1970s. Community members, to Messina’s discontent, petitioned to add the 52-year-old structure to the National Register of Historic Places.

Later that year, Cleveland-based GBX Group, which specializes in preserving storied buildings in urban settings, reached out to Messina to share its vision for a modern restaurant that honored Tom’s Diner’s rich past. “I saw an opportunity, and it felt like something I wanted to stick around for,” says Messina, who received a Small Business Administration loan and financing from a local bank to fund the project, with GBX leading the preservation. Tom’s Starlight was born this past September.

While Tom’s Diner was utilitarian, Tom’s Starlight is more design-focused—all midcentury retro cool, thanks to local firms Kephart, Lvtd Design, and Compliment Design Interiors. The walnut paneling above the bar, backless orange bar stools, avocado green booths, multicolored square-patterned carpeting, and art-deco-inspired lights were all chosen to match the building’s Googie bones. It feels a little bit Mad Men and a little bit The Wonder Years, with just a hint of Colfax grittiness—and it works.

The vibe at Tom’s Starlight is swankier, and so is the food. The menu is more concise, and most of the dishes I tried were well-executed takes on classic Americana cuisine. The sliders, an effective bridge between the old diner and new lounge, tasted exactly how good cheeseburgers should. Threads of grilled onions and Hawaiian rolls gave sweetness to the melted-cheddar-coated, just-greasy-enough patties.

The sandwiches and a daily rotating flatbread were similarly satisfying. The spicy chicken sando, coated with lots of hot sauce, butter, and vinegar and topped with a cooling pecan-date coleslaw, was delightfully crispy with a decent kick, but I wouldn’t say it was so special as to redefine the chicken sandwich. The same could probably be said of that night’s veggie flatbread, although it was heartier than I expected. The ricotta and harissa tahini sauce jazzed it up with spice, depth, and richness, and the zucchini and cauliflower were cooked well, maintaining just the right amount of snap.

Order flatbreads inspired by Moroccan and Italian flavors at Tom’s Starlight. Photo by Sarah Banks

The six entrées are probably the biggest difference between the old and new eateries. For one, they tend to be priced north of $20, which raises the question: Is Tom’s Starlight really the kind of place where you should order a $38 filet? I didn’t think so. The two medallions were just OK, with nothing noteworthy about their flavor, quality, or sauce. (For a few more dollars, you can get a superior steak up the road at fellow historical haunt Bastien’s.)

Because Tom’s Starlight is more of a lounge, cocktails are key—and many were delicious. My favorite was the Radio Freqs, a sweet, tangy mix of pink-peppercorn-infused gin, Luxardo, Aperol, grapefruit, lemon, and simple syrup.

There were several empty tables on the night I visited, but that wasn’t the case at brunch, when the diner was full by 11 a.m. The crowd could be attributed to the affordably priced lineup (most everything is around $12) or the fact that many of the dishes exceed expectations. The egg sandwich, for example, comes with a thin slice of salami, avocado, onion, and egg cooked over well on a potato bun. The saltiness of the salami, combined with the creaminess of the avocado and buttery goodness of the bun, made for a perfectly balanced morning bite.

The breakfast burrito was a welcome departure from the grease bombs I often find elsewhere. Instead of a thick, tomato-heavy sauce, the venue drapes its rendition with crema and green chile made with tomatillos, green chiles, masa, and a heavy helping of onions and garlic. My only criticism of the grilled Mexican staple was that, instead of the bacon I ordered, it was filled with sausage (not my preferred breakfast protein). There was so little of it, though, that I didn’t say anything to the staff, which, as a whole, I’d characterize as kind but maybe not always operating to its full potential.

The drinks, food, and ambience at Tom’s Starlight are all solid steps up from what Tom’s Diner’s offered, which, depending on your affinity for 24-hour joints, could be good or bad. Obviously, the diner was a cornerstone of Capitol Hill eating, but given its strong start, the lounge could eventually create a legacy of its own.

Gettin’ Googie With It

A California-born, Jetsons-forward architectural style, Googie lives on in Denver, thanks to efforts to protect buildings such as the one occupied by Tom’s Starlight. The modernist aesthetic—characterized by sharp angles, geometric shapes, and upswept roofs—was a prevalent look for drive-ins and diners along roadways in the Mile High City from after World War II to the early 1970s. While many examples of the style have disappeared or remain threatened due to development, some have been given second lives. Here, three places to spot these blasts from the past.

Bastien’s Restaurant

In 2009, the East Colfax Avenue restaurant became the first Googie structure in the country to land a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. The stalwart’s neon-embellished sign and 24-sided, circus-tent-style roof have beckoned Denverites to stop in for sugar-rubbed steaks and classic cocktails since 1958, when the Bastien family debuted the chophouse and lounge.

Sam’s No. 3. Photo courtesy of Sophia Armatas

Sam’s No. 3

In 2002, the Armatas family moved Sam’s No. 3, the all-day eatery they established in 1923, into a 1960s-era diner at 1500 Curtis Street. Inside the building—which is still adorned with Googie features such as large plate glass windows, counter and table seating, and walls painted in bold, contrasting colors—patrons gather for casual Greek, American, and Mexican fare.

Super Carniceria La Hacienda

Super Carniceria La Hacienda’s wavy, dramatically folded roof is a telltale sign of Googie flair. Before the bright yellow, mushroom-shaped structure on South Federal Boulevard became a Mexican grocery store stocked with everything from pan dulce (sweet breads) to roasted green chiles in the 2010s, it was a Big Top Auto Mart gas station dating back to the early 1960s.

This article was originally published in 5280 April 2023.
Allyson Reedy
Allyson Reedy
Allyson Reedy is a freelance writer and ice cream fanatic living in Broomfield.