Cafe Society

Tom's Urban 24: Is this upscale diner ready for prime time?

You might not know the name Tom Ryan, but you've probably heard of Smashburger, the fast-casual concept he founded in Denver in 2007. Smashburger has been a smashing success, expanding to 200 locations worldwide in just a few years and nabbing the Forbes title of "most promising company" in America in the process. Now this former McDonald's executive and muse behind Pizza Hut's stuffed-crust pizzas is focusing on something that might give him, rather than his brands, that same level of recognition: Tom's Urban 24.

See also: Behind the scenes at Tom's Urban 24

Launched in the sunny, big-windowed, two-story space previously occupied by Samba Room on a prime corner of Larimer Square, Ryan's latest venture isn't fast food or even fast casual, but — as you might expect from someone with his background — it does have a gimmick. Tom's never closes, serving non-stop comfort food to business lunchers and weekend brunchers, show-goers and late-night bartenders who get off work and aren't ready to head home. With its round-the-clock hours and a menu dotted with dishes like the Midnight Slopper and Colorado Hot Brown, it has the feel of an upscale diner, but Ryan is quick to stress otherwise. "We're Tom's Urban 24," he says. "We're not a diner." If the comparison remains a sore spot, it might be because Ryan is trying to fend off brand impressions of sticky menus, bottomless cups of coffee and overcooked eggs. But recent visits show that name aside, Tom's Urban 24 has more in common with diners than the high-end establishments on the other side of Larimer's sparkling white lights.

And that's okay. Denver is a big town, and not everyone wants artisanal charcuterie or sea bass with sunchoke veloute. Sometimes you want to hole up in a curvy booth with a burger, and Tom's Urban 24 is the place for that, especially if you want a craft cocktail to go along with it. (Bartenders Chris Clewell and Les Baker recently competed in the finals of a national bartending competition.) Made with eight ounces of ground Angus, the patty isn't smashed to order, as it is at Ryan's other joint — that technique doesn't work as well on a chargrill — but it is marbled with a half-ounce of frozen, grated butter. Topped with bacon, cheddar and Stranahan's Whiskey barbecue sauce and barely contained in a toasted brioche bun, the burger is every bit as good as it should be, considering Ryan's pedigree.

Tom's has two menus: one for breakfast, lunch and late-night fare that runs from 10 p.m. to 4 p.m., and a similar, heartier version that picks up at 4 p.m. and runs until 10. Laminated and filled with stars highlighting Tom's picks, both seem developed by contestants on Family Feud trying to hit all the top answers for "Name something people like to eat for comfort." Macaroni and cheese, pizza, soft tacos, soups, meatloaf, pot pie — all are represented here, accessorized at Urban Outfitters, not Sears.

Some are good enough to warrant the tony Larimer address. Filet mignon pot pie is loaded with meat. Curly cavatappi is blended with three kinds of cheese, carnitas and green chile in a homey mash-up of flavors that resembles, in the most flattering way possible, a bowl of Rotel-based queso. Lemon-poppyseed pancakes are light and ever so crisp, with baked-in blueberries and enough lemon zest and lemon juice to prevent them from falling off the sugary cliff. And while not as authentic as anything on Federal, the carnitas pho, with rice noodles, oven-crisped bits of shredded pork and sprigs of mint, cilantro and basil, walks the line between Southwestern and Vietnamese with just the right amount of deference and swagger. (Another thing with swagger: your child, after he's just told the joke on the kids' menu that folds into a cootie catcher: "Why did the star go to the bathroom? It had to go twinkle.")

Certain ingredients — Korean barbecue sauce, Stranahan's Whiskey, fig jam — are scattered about the menu like graffiti tags on brick walls. But ingredients alone don't make a big-city dish; it's what you do with them that counts. One night, a pizza with scratch-made fig jam, Granny Smith apples and goat cheese needed a tart intervention — far more apples and goat cheese to save it from its sugary self. (The jam behaved better in a house-made "Pop Tart," but a thicker layer of goat cheese would have furthered the recovery there, too.) At brunch, that Korean barbecue sauce was tasty on one of my trio of tacos, but the adobo chicken was so shy of meat it seemed vegetarian. And all three tacos came out cold and had to be sent back. Fried chickenlooper with corn cakes, Tom's version of chicken and waffles, didn't do our governor justice, with cloying pancakes, dried-out meat and breading that gave my knife a run for its money. Servers aren't always sure of the specials or the tables they're serving. And that exaggerated sigh by the hostess when asked for one of the many empty seats with a view? It felt more unwelcoming than it did urban chic.

With orange-and-camel booths, balloon-like glass fixtures and a glossy bar, plus an airy loft with enough seating for parties, Tom's wants to be a pick-up-your-spirits spot, but so far the food and service remain consistently inconsistent. A recent menu redesign after Tom's passed the three-month mark at the end of January was a step in the right direction, but with entrees topping out at $26, it's not as clear why you'd come here for that kind of meal as it is why you'd pop in for lunch or brunch or to continue the festivities when everything else is shuttered for the night.

The idea of an affordable middle ground — a place to eat, drink and be merry at all hours, a sort of T.G.I. Friday's for this century — has staying power in our post-recession economy, and Ryan is already looking to expand. Whether Tom's Urban 24 is going to make its founder's name a household word will depend on whether this spot can run smoothly day and night. Right now, it doesn't seem quite ready for prime time.

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Gretchen Kurtz has worked as a writer for 25 years; during that time she's stomped grapes in Napa, eaten b'stilla in Fez, and baked with Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss. Her work has appeared in publications including Boulevard (Paris), Diversion, the New York Times and Westword. Our restaurant critic since 2012, she loves helping you decide where to eat and drink tonight.
Contact: Gretchen Kurtz