For this month’s installment of Bites by Design, we go to Denver, Colorado, where a former brothel turned adult book shop has been reborn as a coveted eatery.
Following the success of Root Down and Linger, Edible Beats restaurant group’s two other Denver-based, theme-driven restaurants, Chef-owner Justin Cucci turned his attentions to reviving Ophelia. Now Cucci and his team can add the resulting dining outpost, dubbed Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox, to their list of successes. The 8,000-square-feet restaurant seats 425 and is housed in a Queen Anne style brick building that was built 1889. Though it began life as Kopper’s Hotel and Saloon, the structure was renamed the Airedale in 1919. During its tenure, the Airedale also housed a brothel, peep-show, and in more recent times, an adult store named “Diamond Lils.”
Cucci, who has gained notoriety for his risk-taking food and decor, knew he wanted to preserve the building’s unique history. He even describes the interior as an homage the past, and, “a mash-up style of recycled and repurposed craziness.” On arrival guests are greeted by the first piece of this mash-up: a large vintage portrait of a semi-nude woman. She wears an unreadable expression, and possesses a kind of mystery and sly beauty that seems intent on causing intrigue. Cucci, who found the portrait on Etsy, says he named her Ophelia, and she in turn became the restaurant’s muse.
Yet Ophelia isn’t the only relic of the building’s colorful past. Cucci, with the help of BOSS Architects, spent many, many hours considering how to imbue the space with something he calls the right balance of “intentional misalignment.” Part of the process involved turning the formerly one-floor area into a multi-level venue that now offers both an upper and lower level bar, along with a stage for live music, and outdoor patio seating for those balmy summer evenings.
The lower level (basement) bar was a particularly special project. It is constructed from somewhere in the neighborhood of 5000 empty Jäger bottles, all personally collected from a friend of Cucci’s father. Interestingly enough, the friend in question also drank the contents of all of the bottles. For the stage, which was formerly a only 6-feet-deep crawl space, Cucci and his team purchased several transistor radios and then cut them in half to serve as the backdrop. Even the stage curtains have been thoroughly considered; they are comprised of a number of Black Velvet paintings from the 1970s.
Throughout the rest of the restaurant clever ‘70s era kitsch melds with tastefully seedy decor. There is an odd kind of charm to it, and it’s impossible to miss the nods to an era of red light districts, sleazy flophouses and covert deeds. Virtually every surface is covered with some relic of the past. Many of the walls are set with vintage movie-theater wallpaper, old pinball machines tops have been converted into bar tops, antiquated sex show booths are used as hostess stands; there are even vintage pornographic images that seem almost demure in the context of today. For many of these odds and ends, Cucci turned to Craiglist, eBay, and yard and estate sales to find what he calls “mid-mod and reclaimed design elements.”
The menu, which offers “gastro-brothel” fare, is just as much of a melting pot of influences as the restaurant’s decor. Cucci, along with his Executive Chef Jeremy Kittleson and Culinary Director Daniel Asher, co-conceptualized and designed each of the vibrant dishes. Plates like the lamb gyro are a complete departure from offerings like the Scandinavian duck meat balls or the bourbon BBQ oysters. Yet even with the riot of world flavors, Cucci still feels the menu achieves the goal of offering crave-able, universal food.
“Ultimately,” he explains, “Ophelia’s offers approachable shared plates, flatbreads, skillets, burgers and entrees that tie back to our philosophy of local, sustainably-sourced and organic. And while Cucci maintains that all of Ophelia’s dishes are worth ordering, his personal favorites are “The Spring Cheese Incident,” “The Brothel Burger” (made from yak meat), and the duck meatballs with parsnip grits.