Openings and Closings

Tom's Diner Reopening September 28 as Tom's Starlight, 1970s Palm Springs-Inspired Cocktail Bar

Tom's Starlight opens September 28.
Tom's Starlight opens September 28. Molly Martin
One of Colfax's most iconic buildings will reopen September 28 with a new name and a new look.

In 1999, Tom Messina took over the Googie-style building at 601 East Colfax Avenue built in 1967 for a White Spot diner. For twenty years, he ran the place as the 24-hour Tom's Diner, which became a beloved Capitol Hill staple.

While the restaurant was popular, he realized that the property itself, which he purchased in 2003, was a good investment. "I was thinking, I'll sell this to some big developer," he recalls. "It's a half-acre. I can see the Capitol from my window, so it's got to be valuable. I'll be sixty-something — which I am now — and I'll cash out. And then a Goody Two Shoes showed up," he adds, laughing.

In 2019, he was in talks with a housing developer when a few members of the community launched a petition to get historic designation for the building. At the time, Messina just wanted out. "It's so hard to manage," he says of running a restaurant that's open 24 hours a day. "I would get calls at 3 a.m. about cooks that broke out in a fight, that kind of stuff. Or the crazy guy that came in all cracked out at 4 a.m. because it was the only game in town, so you would get that element. Looking back, I would never do it again. I sacrificed a lot of my soul. It's never closed. I took it over with the key in my hand and the staff working, and it never closed, for twenty years."
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The newly renovated patio at Tom's Starlight can seat around 150 comfortably.
Tom Hellauer
Historic Denver got in on the act and helped broker a deal with a developer who was willing to keep the Tom's Diner building as part of a residential/retail vision that would include a restaurant. And eventually, Messina was won over by the group's vision. "Be careful what you say," he recalls. "Because I said, 'No way, Jose, am I staying here or coming back. There's no more Tom's on the corner of Colfax and Pearl.' "Well, I'm eating those words. But it's tasting pretty good."

The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and Messina began planning for a remodel with the help of the history-friendly developer GBX Group. But the process was put on pause when the pandemic hit. Tom's Diner closed, along with all other restaurants in Colorado, on March 17, 2020; that May, it was confirmed that it wouldn't reopen. Not as Tom's Diner, at least.

Over the past nine months, Messina and GBX have worked together to transform the space."[GBX] had the vision to move it forward and make it work financially," Messina says. "We came to a good partnership where they allowed me to dream and they believed in it."
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Orange and green retro furniture, dishware and decorations are seen throughout the bar and gathering spot.
Tom Hellauer
Now it's making a comeback as Tom's Starlight, a concept inspired by Palm Springs in the 1970s. "The architecture of the building dictates what we're doing here," Messina explains. The interior deli counter is now a cocktail bar, and there are hues of brown and cream with pops of orange and avocado. Outside, 32 of the 40 parking spaces have become a sprawling space with an AstroTurf-covered lawn area, fire pits, twelve-foot-tall tiki totems, private cabanas, fountains, lighting that can change colors, and a music system that will carry jazz tunes throughout the space.

"We have water, we have fire, we have sun. I think it's going to be a nice place to come in, have a drink and feel like you're on a little mini-vacation," Messina says. "This is an iconic building, and it looks great. I'm glad we were able to really buff it and wax it and bring it back to its heyday with a 21st-century twist."
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The renovation to transform Tom's Diner into Tom's Starlight started this January.
Tom Hellauer
The return of Tom's also marks Messina's return to full-time work. "After being home for the last two and a half years, retirement's not that much fun," he admits. "I was going stir crazy. This is exciting, and I'm looking forward to getting back into it. I think it's going to be fun."

Tom's Starlight will be open just for dinner initially, with plans to add brunch and lunch in the future. But the 24-hour schedule will not be returning — and some other aspects of operations have shifted as well. "The restaurant business looks so different than when I left it two and a half years ago. And rightfully so," Messina notes. "[Hospitality workers] need to get their due. A living wage, for one, and scheduling. In the old days, it was like, you're on. Holidays, you're working. That was the mentality. It needed a realignment."

While Tom's will no longer be a place to get pancakes and coffee after leaving the bar, it's poised to become a different kind of escape on Colfax. "The diner did me well," Messina says. "There were sacrifices made, but I'm happy with how it all turned out."

Tom's Starlight is located at 601 East Colfax Avenue and will be open from 4 p.m. to close Tuesday through Sunday beginning Wednesday, September 28. For more information and to make reservations, visit tomsstarlight.com.
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The shrimp cocktail will be one of several shareables on Tom's Starlight's new menu.
Tom Hellauer
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The food and drink at Tom's Starlight share the same colorful 1970's Palm Spring style as the decor.
Tom Hellauer
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The watermelon salad is one of several dishes with a flair for retro Palm Springs.
Tom Hellauer
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Molly Martin is the Westword Food & Drink editor. She’s been writing about the dining scene in Denver since 2013, and was eating her way around the city long before that. She enjoys long walks to the nearest burrito joint and nights spent sipping cocktails on Colfax.
Contact: Molly Martin

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