Tom's Diner holds a special spot in the pantheon of Denver's 24-hour dives, a special spot in the hearts and bellies of the cops who police it, the night creatures who haunt it, the off-duty strippers, cabbies, hookers and bartenders who frequent it. It's not every place that can get away with serving midnight pancakes COD, with putting keypad security locks on the bathrooms — but then, it's not every place that needs to, either.
On my most memorable night at Tom's, the night manager — a tiny, Midwestern slip of a girl who I knew a little once — had to bounce an abusive bum who'd wandered in begging for change. We'd been sitting together, talking pleasantly about fried chicken and George Orwell, when this wreck started loudly pestering customers, hobbling down the length of the counter because (important detail) he had only one leg; the other ended in a filthy stump above the knee. My friend watched him for a minute and then, with the coldness of a hit man on the job, got up, told the gimp he had to go and, when he protested, kicked his good leg out from underneath him. After he hit the tile, she pointed him toward the door, then returned to me and our dropped conversation like it was just another day at the office.
The Tom's menu is a post-industrial American-diner standard that would be just as appropriate at a truck stop or roadhouse. It's lunchwagon stuff: cheeseburgers and eggs, hash browns and bacon, battered mozzarella sticks and pancakes by the score. The kitchen does a decent burrito if you're drunk, a terrible Philly, and dependably great breakfasts at all hours. The servers — all tough, no-bullshit and friendly as long as you're not standing on the counter with your wang in your hand or causing trouble among the regulars — work the colorful floor, bringing good pie and strong, hot black coffee in mugs heavy enough to crack someone's skull.
Rosie's is my favorite diner for eating; Breakfast King is my favorite diner in daylight. But after dark, Tom's is the champion. If there's ever been a dull night here, I haven't heard about it. And even in those odd, languid moments when the rush has rolled out and the floor is quiet, Tom's still feels crouched and expectant — just waiting for the next weird thing (or one-legged bum) to walk in the door.
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