Tom’s Diner on Colfax will reopen next month as a cocktail bar and lounge

The new layout will be an indoor-outdoor concept that owner Tom Messina describes as “Palm Springs 70s.”
5 min. read
A large “Now Hiring” sign fills one of the front windows of Tom’s Diner on Colfax Ave on Aug 3, 2022. The restaurant will reopen as Tom’s Starlight, a new cocktail lounge, in early September.
Matt Bloom/CPR News

There are signs of life at Tom's Diner on Colfax for the first time in over two years. The plywood boards that covered the restaurant's windows have come down, and a giant "Now Hiring" sign fills the front window.

Now, it's official: Opening day is set for early September, according to longtime owner Tom Messina. But customers shouldn't expect the same menu from before.

The restaurant at 601 E Colfax Ave. will drop "diner" from its name and open as a cocktail bar and lounge called Tom's Starlight. There's still a food menu, but it doesn't include scrambled eggs and coffee, Messina said.

"For some people who loved the diner, that's hard to swallow," Messina said. "But I think when you walk in you'll be pleasantly surprised."

Longtime residents will remember the old diner had dozens of menu offerings and was open 24 hours a day. Instead, the new lounge will serve up a smaller menu than before with "15 to 20 appetizer and entrée items tops," Messina said. Hours will be limited to lunch and dinner, along with weekend brunch.

An illustration of the new Tom’s Starlight lounge shows a large patio space outside of the restaurant. Messina says the new space will have fire pits and cabanas for guests.
Courtesy of GBX Group

The look and feel of the place will be different too.

Messina worked with a Cleveland-based developer that specializes in restoring historic buildings for the revamp. The new layout will be an indoor-outdoor concept that Messina describes as "Palm Springs 70s," with a large indoor bar where the deli counter used to be.

The design is meant to complement the architecture of the building, which was built in 1967.

The futuristic vibe and spaceship-style roof is considered one of the country's best examples of Googie-style architecture, and the diner was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2019. The style draws influences from the car culture and space race of the 1950s and 60s.

"You can't readily manufacture properties with this type of meaning and cultural ties to their surrounding neighborhoods," said David Swentor, president of real estate at GBX Group, the project's co-developer, in a statement. "We have a chance to simultaneously protect the history of this beloved hotspot and breathe new life into the area."

The relaunch is a far cry from what Messina planned for the building three years ago. In 2019, he was in talks to sell the property to a housing developer. 

In response, fans of the diner launched a petition to get historical designation status for the building. The effort initially rubbed Messina the wrong way. He was ready to let the business go after running it for two decades, he said.

He eventually came around to the idea of preserving it after hearing the group's pitch.

"I got so excited that I wanted to do it because I saw the potential," Messina said.

Construction workers build a new walkway outside of Tom’s Diner on Colfax Ave on Aug. 3, 2022. The restaurant will reopen as Tom’s Starlight, a new cocktail lounge, in early September, according to owner Tom Messina.
Matt Bloom/CPR News

After he applied for a historic designation, he planned to move forward with a remodel. But then, in 2020, the pandemic hit and upended the entire restaurant industry. Tom's shut down on March 15, 2020, and restoration efforts were nipped in the bud.

"It's funny how things played out, that's for damn sure," Messina said.

Over the past two years, the industry has gone through what Messina describes as a "reckoning."

Hiring has been slow. Wages are higher. Supply chains are more unreliable. All of those factors have made the business model for a large diner unsustainable.

"I'm noticing new challenges that I didn't have in the past," he said.

Still, he's aiming for a soft opening around Labor Day. Messina has a set date in mind, but said he wasn't ready to make it public just yet.

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

Longtime fans of the diner, meanwhile, are glad to see the building bounce back - even if it will be serving something different.

Shannon Stage, a manager of preservation services at Historic Denver, helped advocate for preservation of the building. She considers the reopening the end of a long-fought success story.

Stage was also able to help get an easement for the site from the Colorado Historical Foundation, which protects it against demolition in perpetuity, she said.

"We have to preserve the character of our city that is coming down left and right," Stage said. "We don't have many examples of the Googie style in town, especially along Colfax anymore."

As a resident, she's also interested to see what Messina does with the new space.

"Personally, I'm just excited to eat there again," she said.

Messina says cocktails and food will cost $10-20 once Starlight opens.

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