Linger and Root Down visionary owner-chef Justin Cucci likes to get in over his head, taking risks that he admits seem destined to fail. When Root Down opened in an old gas station in a transitional neighborhood blocks from where the action seemed hottest, Denverites scratched their heads, but they were soon flocking to the place for the Whack-a-Mole-style menu with random, surprising bursts of flavor popping up from a list of small plates that seemed as eclectic and far-flung as the repurposed elements of the decor. Next came Linger, in the heart of the LoHi dining scene but built in a derelict mortuary with toe-tag menus, specimen jars for water bottles and other macabre touches that could have driven the more squeamish out the doors. Not only did both eateries work, but they've become top Denver destinations — mainly because of the daredevil piloting of culinary director Daniel Asher, but also because of the awe-inspiring detail that mosaics every square foot of space in Cucci's establishments, from the RV onLinger's rooftop that doubles as a summertime food truck to an expansive bar top encrusted with glowing Lite Brite pegs to overflowing suitcases under glass at Root Down DIA. Now Cucci and his team are ready to unveil the latest from the Edible Beats restaurant group, Ophelia's Electric Soapbox, scheduled to begin service next Tuesday. To see more photos — and believe us, you'll want to — see our full slideshow.
Built in the ground floor and basement (originally just a crawlspace that was dug out to accommodate a stage and dance floor) of a fin de siècle hotel that's since seen incarnations as a brothel, a peep-show parlor and an adult book store, Ophelia's, which Cucci describes as a "gastro-brothel," captures the spirit of its predecessors with risque decor — think vintage boudoir photos and framed soft-core movie posters — and swank, mustache-porn touches like gold crushed-velour ottoman seating, black-velvet paintings and backlit sexploitation arcade-game panels.
Despite the theme, Cucci says he doesn't like themes. And while the decor definitely skews '70s, the hodgepodge of other found items from multiple eras keeps Ophelia's from falling off the edge of eclectic into pure kitsch. And the entire concept — part dinner club, part live-music venue, part late-night party spot — defies pigeonholing, too. The menu, from Cucci, Asher and executive chef Jeremy Kittelson, ranges as broadly as those at Linger and Root Down, capturing flavors from Greece (lamb gyros salad), Venezuela (black-bean-and-plantain arepas), the American South (dry-rubbed pork ribs with Carolina mustard sauce), and Japan (teriyaki wings with togarashi ranch dressing). Other offerings defy categorization: a jar of thumbnail-sized smoked bay scallops balances hot, cool and smoky with a side pot of chive crème fraîche and an eye-dropper filled with tongue-searing habanero hot sauce, while Belgian mussels flirt with Southeast Asian flavors in a broth of local De Steeg saison ale and Glider cider.
The house hamburger, called the brothel burger, is also far from ordinary — with an ostrich patty, miso-glazed bacon and ponzu onions. Big plates include New York strip with frites, Skuna Bay salmon and a roasted half chicken with chimichurri. Several house cocktails, simple mixes with three or four ingredients, dip into Denver's history with names like Diamond Lil's and the Airedale, named after the building itself.
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Cucci says the space itself has a feminine vibe and celebrates sexuality. Certain more explicit items will be on display for the late-night crowd; Cucci hopes to fill the street-facing bay windows with objects from the adult bookstore that was the last tenant. Above the restaurant, the space is being returned to it's former life as a hotel; a business hostel is already in the works (under separate ownership) which should be open this summer.
Downstairs, there's a second bar, with backlit walls of Jägermeister airplane bottles that create green, glowing panels resembling glass tile more than liquor bottles, which Cucci says came from his father's liquor store — and were apparently all consumed by one customer. The main attraction downstairs is a stage for live entertainment, a dance floor and a 25-foot projection screen. Bands have already been booked for upcoming weekend shows, and there will also be DJ nights and lip-sync nights (with formats similar to Jimmy Fallon's Lyp Sync Battle).
"Yes, its overreaching," Cucci says. "Will people come and get it, and understand what we're trying to do?" Ophelia's, he explains, is not attempting to compete with the ViewHouse or the Tavern Downtown, but is instead intended to be a serious restaurant with added entertainment for what Cucci hopes will be an older crowd than the one that typically visits the neighborhood. Cucci's previous projects seemed overreaching at the time, too. Ophelia's certainly has the dynamic thumbprint and unique vision of the restaurateur that has made his other ventures so successful.