Slice of Life
While waiting for our food to arrive at Tom's Diner, we gaze out the window and watch two drug deals, one hooker pickup and a drunk depositing the contents of his stomach on the sidewalk. And our food arrives fast. "Oooh, sorry about that," the server says as she spots the drunk, who now seems recovered, maybe even ready to buy some drugs and pick up a hooker. "That happens sometimes."
Tom's is located at the corner of Colfax Avenue and Pearl Street, an address that appears often on the Denver Police Department's call sheet for District 6. "The first town meeting I went to after I bought the place, I saw this bulletin board with a map of the city with red dots all over it showing the number of calls the precinct gets on that area," says Tom Messina, who opened his diner nearly two years ago. "My corner was the biggest red dot, with 243 calls in one year. It was like ground zero."
But today the Guardian Angels' office sits right across the street -- its number on the side of the building is visible from the diner's windows and is programmed into the eatery phone's direct-dial list, along with those of several employees' cell phones -- and Messina works hard to keep things clean. "I used to get solicited when I pulled into the parking lot every night," he says. "They'd say, 'Hey, what are you lookin' for?' and I'd tell 'em, 'Listen, you asshole, I'm lookin' for my parking space, and then I'm lookin' for you to get the hell out of here, fast.' They can tell I'm from New York. They can tell I ain't kiddin'."
Although Messina still boasts the accent of his native Brooklyn, he left New York when he was eighteen to work at hotels and restaurants in Miami; a decade later, he started driving across the country because he wanted "a change of life." He stopped when his car broke down in Colorado Springs. "I knew I couldn't stay there, though, because the only way I'd meet anyone I could marry was if I joined Focus on the Family or the military," he says.
By 1999 he was managing the Gothic Theatre on South Broadway; driving home one night, he spotted the empty restaurant space, which three decades ago had been a White Spot, then a Colorado Cafe, a Barry's and, most recently, the Sun Cafe. "Well, okay, I knew about Colfax," he says. "But I didn't know this particular corner was like everything that happens on Colfax times a thousand. I was driving by and I thought, 'What a great diner. Why isn't somebody doing something with it?' If I'd known then what I know now, I never would have done it. I've learned an awful lot since then."
During his twenty years in the hospitality industry, Messina had seen some stuff. But not this kind of stuff: people slashing their wrists in the bathroom; teenaged girls pulling knives; druggies so out of it they couldn't remember how they wound up in the restaurant, drag queens cat-fighting over a $20 tab. "I could tell you some stories about when we first opened," says Messina. But the most important story seems headed for a happy ending: Messina has turned the location around, and today Tom's is a pretty spiffy spot that serves worthy diner fare.
Messina hired Off the Wall, a local artists' group, to paint a mural on the roof, a groovy '70s montage of disco dancers and smooching couples; inside the orange-dominated eatery, he created a lounging area with purple leather couches, a wooden coffee table, wall sculptures and lava lamps. A few weeks ago he added a 25-seat patio, which puts Colfax pretty much right in your lap. Adding to the atmosphere are the affable employees, including orange-haired server Becky, whose arm bears angel tattoos six years in the making, and the cooks -- skull-capped Tom, serious Rick and the always-grinnin' Jesse -- who periodically have to take breaks from the exposed kitchen, which they say gets unbearably hot. And then there's chatty but hardworking dishwasher Steve, who works days at Gates Rubber and nights at Tom's, and late-night bouncer Leroy, who stands about 6' 6", weighs about 300 pounds and definitely makes it safer to be in Tom's at 3 a.m., when the eatery is Denver's best bet for a decent meal.
The kitchen turns out exactly the kind of fare you'd expect from a diner: wholesome comfort food, straightforward and cheap, served in ample portions. The recipes are all Messina's, except for the super-moist, ingredient-packed apple nut cake that started with Rick's grandma. Many menu items have cutesy names that can inspire guffaws -- "The drunks all think the 'Balls of Fire' are hilarious," says chipper server Jessica. "They don't really want jalapeño pepper poppers, but they order them just so they can say 'Balls of Fire' and then burst out laughing."
The "Silly Philly" sports another lighthearted name, but sided by crispy, thick-cut fries, this sandwich was serious eating. Messina's pride and joy -- "I want to win an award for that one," he says -- the cheesesteak loaded an enormous hoagie bun with thick chunks of steak instead of the usual thin slivers. When it's cooked right, the meat is tender and juicy, the white American cheese is hot and gooey, and the onion, green peppers and mushrooms are grill-greasy and smooshy. But when the kitchen's hot and the cook's cranky, everything turns chewy and dry. The menu also promises that the BLT comes "SWAK," but fortunately, we didn't know by whom. It was enough to bite into the thick, soft-centered sourdough bread topped by crispy applewood-smoked bacon and tomatoes a little past their prime (an almost refreshing change from tomatoes so hard they could break teeth).
Tom's soups all begin with a commercial base, which isn't necessarily a bad thing (half of the so-called fine-dining establishments in town do the same), but by the end of the day, the pots could use a little thinning with water or milk. We tried the soup of the day -- tomato with vegetables and beans -- and the slightly salty base gave the fresh veggies and big chunks of tomato a nice edge. The potato chowder was also appealing in a down-home way, chock-full of skin-on potatoes and corn, with a sort of Thanksgiving-turkey flavor thanks to a liberal sprinkling of thyme and parsley. And the green chile was sweet and spicy, with a cornstarchy sheen and a big chunk of pork; a few warmed tortillas made for some happy dipping.
The fried items were deliciously greasy, as they should be at any true diner. The aforementioned Balls of Fire contained red jalapeños and melty cream cheese. For the fish and chips, two long, thin planks of cod had been evenly coated in batter and fried until golden; the side of Texas toast was pure heaven, drenched in sweet butter and grilled. The salt-and-pepper-pelted fried chicken was crunchy on the outside and moist inside; the three pieces came with real mashed potatoes covered in a thick, salty white gravy that would have been at home on biscuits, too. But the real star of our meals was the quintessential diner plate of "old-fashioned" meatloaf: a thick, juice-oozing slab of meaty, oniony, peppery loaf, paired with more mashed potatoes covered with a dark, beefy gravy this time, as well as watery steamed zucchini and yellow squash (what else?) and slices of sourdough bread.
Sadly, Tom's milkshakes were awful. Served lukewarm, they tasted like nothing more than chocolate milk with whipped cream and seemed to contain no ice cream at all. Desserts were a much more sweet-tooth-satisfying deal. Although Rick's grandma's apple nut cake isn't offered all the time, it proved a dense, chewy delight. And the pies, baked (but not made) on the premises, were uniformly gooey and sweet inside their lardy crusts, just the thing for eating warm with a cup of joe.
So stop by Tom's for a slice -- of life, as well as pie.
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