We all know a place where we can get an excellent burger. Most of us know that those excellent burgers will eventually clog our arteries and kill us. Especially the ones with cheese. Especially the ones with just a light spread of mayo on the bottom bun. Especially the ones served with a mound of french fries and a dollop of salad. But not that macaroni crud, ask for the potato salad instead, or even the cole slaw. But do it quick, since Tom's Tavern in Boulder, Colorado is closing for good on December 22, 2007.
There are hundreds of stories about Tom's in my family. That amounts to about one per burger consumed there. When the Pearl Street Mall opened thirty years ago, Tom's had already been in business for eighteen years. Rather than being swallowed up by the new wave of yuppie eateries and shopping opportunities, Tom's remained a sure thing in a world that brought Mork and Mindy to a deli just down the street, and a seemingly endless rotation of restaurants up and down the street where no one drove anymore, but they would walk to Tom's.
My own love affair with Tom's began when my father used to take us there for lunch on a Saturday afternoon. As I got older, I began to appreciate the cozy familiarity of the place. For most of the time that I lived in Boulder, going to Tom's was like entering a cocoon. The only natural light came from the small windows at the south end of the room, just above the pay phone. That's where one would inevitably stand in line and wait for a table, giving the lingering diners the evil eye as your stomach churned in anticipation of the meal that awaited.
And what a meal it was. When I was a more aggressive eater, I ordered two burgers with no fries. The "no fries" was my nod to respect for my digestive system. Somehow that lack of fries would save me, or more likely, allow me more room to pack in burgers.
Years passed, and some things changed: There was outside seating, and even windows installed on the east wall to allow everyone to see the food that they ordered more clearly. The jukebox, the most eclectic and impressive collection of tunes to consume by, was eventually replaced by a CD version, but at least the odd mix of selections was effectively maintained. Through it all, however, the burgers remained consistent. There were plenty of cooks in all those years. I knew one of them through a prior job at a local Mexican restaurant, and I looked forward to hollering at him through the tiny portal through which the food was passed to the waitresses standing just behind the bar.
Tom's was, after all, a Tavern. It's where I first sat fascinated as my father poured salt into his beer. He always ordered "a burger and a draught". I can only guess what was coming out of the tap, but since he felt good about pouring salt into it, it must have needed it. The burgers never did. I'm generally a cheeseburger guy, but this was a place where less truly was more. That hint of mayo and a little bit of ketchup was enough for me. When I was in college, like my brother and father before me, Tom's burgers served as the only solid food that would cure a raging hangover. I am sure there were a few of those that saved my life, at least for a while.
Tom Eldridge died last May, and his family considered its options before deciding to close. As a business, it had been hemmoraging money for years, and the place had finished its natural cycle along with its founder. What happens next on the corner of 11th and Pearl is only speculation, but the words of Warren Zevon, when asked about his own impending death, come back to me as quiet reassurance: "Enjoy every sandwich." I'm sure that goes double for Tom's burgers.