When Tom's Urban 24 opened on Halloween night 2012, it lit up the corner of Larimer and 15th streets that had gone dark when the Samba Room closed. Last week that space went dark again -- but only temporarily -- so that owner Tom Ryan could introduce some changes. When the brown paper covering the dining room windows was taken down Monday morning, the restaurant was again open for business -- but as Tom's Urban, with the "24" dropped from the name and the open-all-night concept sliced in half. The space has also gotten a bit of a cosmetic update, and the menu has been revamped, too. We sat down with Ryan at the bar before the doors opened to talk about the changes in design, food and drink.
See also: Tom's Urban Bartenders Shake Things Up
"There are things you figure out by design before you open," Ryan says. "And when you open, you learn from how the market and the customer base interacts with you." As we talk, electricians are still clambering up and down ladders; in two hours, the restaurant will be open again after a week-long facelift.
"Originally, when we opened, it was a 24-hour concept," Ryan says. "We learned fairly quickly that that's good when there are people down here, and it's not so good for a variety of reasons -- business reasons, safety reasons, whatever -- when there's not people down here. So we kind of made a decision along the way to morph Tom's Urban 24 into Tom's Urban, and basically be open while there's people on Larimer Square."
Ryan learns from experience -- and he has plenty. He not only started Tom's Urban, but the Smashburger and Live Basil Live Basil chains. There are currently 275 Smashburgers (25 in Colorado), and six Live Basil restaurants -- five of them Denver, one in Los Angeles. The Larimer Square Tom's was the first in that line; there's now one in L.A., too, and a third being built in Las Vegas that should be open by December.
But Ryan's restaurant lineage goes back much further. He pioneered the concept of stuffed-crust pizza, and he was the guy who brought the McGriddle breakfast sandwich to McDonald's. In 2004, he opened Chef Jimmy's Bistro in Terminal A at Denver International Airport, and later opened Mesa Verde Grill, also in Terminal A. In June 2007, Ryan introduced the first Smashburger, at the intersection of Colorado and Mississippi. In May 2013, the Live Basil concept made its debut as a casual eatery serving pizza made and topped with with fresh ingredients.
"We don't do one of anything," Ryan says of his three restaurant families. "The idea behind Tom's Urban was to provide customers with a place to get interesting yet familiar food at a relatively great price, with full bar service and some cool features in terms of cocktails and craft beers."
And after a twenty-month run as Tom's Urban 24, Ryan felt it was time to give that original idea a few twists. "We've learned a lot," he says. "We've morphed our look and feel a little bit. We never meant it to be a diner. We did want it to be a democratized concept for Larimer Square, so that almost anybody could come in here and have a great time -- and afford to have a great time. We had some 'diner-esque' elements in our original concept, only because we thought that that familiarity was going to be good. It's been a slow evolution ever since."
But when he decided to make physical changes, they happened fast.
Keep reading for more on the changes in decor and dishes at Tom's Urban... Gone are the bright turquoise walls; those have been painted over with a softer tan, the color of cappuccino. The dining areas now feel calmer and more relaxed, less like a fast-paced diner and more like a restaurant. "We had a fairly dominant color scheme," Ryan says. "Most of it was a turquoise-and-orange profile, and obviously we've gone into a 'lounge-esque' approach, with more subdued and warmer tones."
Gone also are the seats that lined the windows looking out onto Larimer Square. Guests can now stand at those windows and watch the world go by, resting drinks, appetizers and elbows on giant wooden beams that Ryan calls "stand-ups." As he explains the concept: "We thought the stand-ups would be a great addition, particularly on the Larimer Street side, because the street is beautiful to look at. It's such a great venue. We know that people in Larimer Square really love to watch the action and traffic."
Other changes to the interior include a new wood floor and a large bank of display shelves over the bar that showcase bottles of liquor. Chain-mail curtains on the windows facing 15th Street will cover the service area and block the view to the kitchen.
But the interior isn't all that's changed.
"We understand the importance of the bar," Ryan says, "and how to make the bar a bigger feature of the brand." To that end, Tom's now serves beefed-up beer pours: In addition to the usual pint, there's now a 22-ounce pour, and a chilled mug that holds a hefty 32 ounces. Cocktails also have a Tom's Size option -- a double-serving of booze in a huge glass, with the shaker left on the bar for guests to pour the rest of the drink at their leisure. Another sure-to-be-welcomed addition to the brunch menu are bottomless mimosas and bellinis, at $11 each.
The most sweeping changes, though, are reflected on the menu. "We didn't have a really aggressive dinner program," Ryan says. "We wanted to upgrade that for people who wanted more substantial food." So he added six entrees (available from 4 to 10 p.m. nightly) that reflect the less-diner-more-restaurant direction in which he wants Tom's Urban to go.
Entrees, priced from $18 to $24, include blue corn tortilla enchiladas in verde sauce, pan-seared crab cakes over mustard remoulade, a cassoulet of charro beans and bacon with three versions of pork (bacon, housemade carnitas and Andouille sausage), corn-meal crusted mahi mahi, steak frites, and lamb ribs marinated in harissa sauce.
"My favorite thing on the menu is the Ginger Chicken Pot Sticker Salad," Ryan says. "I have three kids, and when they were little, my wife and I brought them up to eat a lot of third-world food. One of the early adoptions they made was pot stickers, but I could never get them to eat salad. So we started making a meal at home which was something called pot sticker salad. It included their favorite thing, but they had to eat the chopped salad underneath. It turned out to be such a good recipe that I decided the first chance I get to put one of these on the menu, I'm going to do it." His version, on the new menu right now, features chicken- and ginger-stuffed dumplings over a kale and romaine salad, topped with peanut sauce and Sriracha.
Popular menu items remain: You can still get the butter-poached lobster and shrimp taco, as well as the LoDo Breakfast Platter -- a satisfying brunch dish with everything you could ever want for brunch on one plate. And some of the hallmark design elements are unchanged, too, including the cozy mezzanine, the chandelier and the revolving door.
The hours are definitely different: Tom's will be open Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 12:30 a.m., Fridays from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m.
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But the original 24/7 concept isn't gone entirely: When Tom's Urban opens in Las Vegas -- it's part of the remodel of the New York, New York hotel -- it will be open around the clock. "We're working on a menu right now, returning to the original 24-hour format -- Las Vegas is the other city that never sleeps," Ryan notes. Keep reading for photos of new menu items at Tom's Urban...