Tom’s Diner added to National Register of Historic Places, preserving its life on Colfax

The eatery will get a rebrand, and Tom says he’ll still be involved.

Breakfast time at Tom's Diner, East Colfax Avenue, Oct. 19, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Breakfast time at Tom's Diner, East Colfax Avenue, Oct. 19, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

KEVIN-lighter

Tom’s Diner will not be demolished.

The building, constructed in 1967, was “officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places,” a press release announced Saturday morning.

The Colfax Avenue staple will be saved from a scrape that some residents fought over the summer. In August, it looked like neighborhood activists had lost when they withdrew their own preservation bid effort. Owner Tom Messina said at the time that their attempt to list the building as historic was “stealing” his retirement.

But Messina confirmed that the building itself is not going anywhere and, what’s more, that he’s “thrilled.” He told Denverite that his deal with Cleveland-based GBX Group is a “win-win” that satisfies his future plans. He’ll still be involved, but in a “more exciting capacity” as the diner is eventually rebranded.

Philip Winton, a spokesperson for GBX, said the real estate company will own the building while Messina continues to operate the restaurant inside. GBX will utilize tax credits and deductions for historic properties that establish “a balance between economic realities and preserving a historically important property.”

Winton told Denverite that there are no plans to build any additional structures “around it or above it.”

“The diner will stay as is,” he said.

Last spring, Business Den reported that a housing developer planned to build apartments on the site.

Tom Messina poses for a portrait inside Tom's Diner on East Colfax Avenue, North Capitol Hill, Aug. 15, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Tom Messina poses for a portrait inside Tom's Diner on East Colfax Avenue, North Capitol Hill, Aug. 15, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Messina said the deal has given him “new enthusiasm” for the restaurant, and that it’s “giving this place a shot in the arm that it needed.”

He said the deal has been in the works for about six months, and that the diner bearing his name will continue to operate “for a while” before it gets a new look.

He said he was grateful for “the support that the community has given me,” and that the agreement and path forward was “the perfect payout, the perfect scenario.”

“It demonstrates the value of taking a little bit of time to see,” said Historic Denver’s Annie Levinsky.

Levinsky, Historic Denver’s executive director, said she was grateful that Messina was willing to explore alternatives. He allowed a pause on his plans to sell while Historic Denver could present him with some options. They connected him with GBX, who they’ve worked with on past projects.

She said she hopes it sets a precedent for future situations where desires for preservation and new development are at odds.

“Our biggest role is introducing these ideas early on,” she said. And then once things are set in motion: “We’re happy to support and promote the new concepts.”

Levinsky said Denver had a good year in terms of historic preservation.

“There’s a lot of positive news to report,” she said. “When it succeeds, it makes a big, positive impact.”

But a preservationist’s work is never done. She said there have been more than 700 demolition permits filed each year in the city over the past few years.

Diner fans are pleased, but there are some questions about what’s next.

Mike Broemmel eats at Tom’s a few times a week. He was sitting at the bar doing some research on Civil War-era embalming techniques and eating a cheeseburger, which he said was “very good.”

Broemmel was glad to hear the restaurant isn’t going anywhere, although he understood why it became such a contentious debate over the summer.

“I kind of was of two minds about it,” he said. “They certainly should be able to profit from the land they’re on and what they’ve invested in. On the other hand, I recognize there’s some historic value to the building and I am a fan of neighborhood diners. This is the one in my neighborhood so I would hate to see it go.”

Alexa Wynschenk and Saba Teklu were finishing up breakfast behind Broemmel. Wynschenk said this is one of her go-to spots. She hadn’t heard that Tom’s might close, and her eyes widened with distress when she heard the backstory.

“It’s the best place ever,” she said. “I’m happy to know it’s good and protected.”

Alexa Wynschenk and Saba Teklu finish breakfast at Tom's Diner. Dec. 21, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Alexa Wynschenk and Saba Teklu finish breakfast at Tom's Diner. Dec. 21, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Breakfast at Tom's Diner. Dec. 21, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Breakfast at Tom's Diner. Dec. 21, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Teklu said the historic designation means East Colfax has one less opportunity to be “gentrified,” though she wondered what a “rebrand” might entail.

“If you look around right now, there are brown people here, black people here, young people here, old people here,” she said.

If the space becomes chic and expensive, she might view the changes as a gentrifying force.

“Prices could be a good indicator if rebranding is being done for the purposes of appeasing a new, younger, richer audience,” she said, “who can pay $27 for a breakfast burrito.”

It’s the accessible, cozy eatery that drew them in to eat Saturday morning.

“You can get your waffle, you can get your eggs, and it’s just very simple stuff that anyone can relate to,” Wynschenk said, “versus trying to get the hip Denver look.”

Winton, GBX’s spokesman, said he couldn’t say what the restaurant may become. For now, the simple burgers and breakfasts will continue to be served up in the building that is officially protected with its new historic designation.

This story has been updated.

Correction: Mike Broemmel’s last name was originally misspelled in this story.

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