Gordon Lightfoot said, “You just get the vibes of your surroundings and it rubs off on you.” It’s no secret that unique locations have leant themselves as inspiration for memorable music, art and literature, but special settings can also play a role in influencing another great work of art – food.
Perhaps no one on the Denver dining scene knows that better than Justin Cucci. The chef first turned heads with Root Down, a converted gas station/mechanic’s garage that made industrial chic a thing. Cucci’s next challenge was transforming a former mortuary into one of the buzziest restaurants in town, Linger. Not one to shy away from a challenge, he fully embraced the building’s dark history, somehow making the macabre-with-a-wink atmosphere work to his food’s advantage.
For his most recent restaurant endeavor, Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox, Cucci found another colorful, historic building: a former brothel. In fact, the space on 20th and Lawrence has had quite the racy history, housing peep shows and sex shops along the way. Now, though, the sinfulness is in the food.
Taking a cue from the sexy, modern-speakeasy vibe, the menu is equally indulgent. Start with green chile goat cheese cornbread ($6), a heavy hit of sweet, spicy and tangy (thanks to the goat cheese) flavors. With melted fennel-honey butter on top, it would be easy to go overboard, but the tiny cast-iron skillet it’s served in keeps you in check.
Much of the menu is similarly sharable – brothel boards, small plates, noshes and flatbreads all invite communal eating. The flatbreads are generous in size and offer familiar flavors with rich twists. A favorite is the prosciutto and pecorino with quail eggs and pumpkin seed pesto ($13).
With entrees limited – just three meaty choices are offered – splitting the small plates is almost a requirement. Luckily they’re the highlights of the menu. The stout-teriyaki duck wings ($13) are just spicy enough and coated with a deep, robust sauce. The Belgian mussels ($15) are a great choice, especially if you like beer, which cuts through the curry broth.
As mentioned, entrees are limited, but there’s a good list of burgers and sandwiches if you’re not in the mood for sharing. The two burgers are standouts. The brothel burger ($16) features yak (just try it), a Korean barbecue sauce and candied bacon on a pretzel bun. The sweet/savory combination is a definite winner. For something a little more traditional, don’t miss the frontiere bison burger ($15) with mushrooms, poblano peppers and Turkish chili aioli.
Because you’re dining in such a lush, decadent atmosphere, you’re definitely going to want dessert. The S’more cake ($7) is a little potful of campfire goodness, while the smoked salt caramels ($1.50) are a relatively guiltless post-meal treat.
Drinks are strong, as they should be when you’re sitting beneath vintage erotica posters. The Airedale ($8), with bourbon, rye, Aperol and grapefruit, is their most popular cocktail, while the Sex Machine ($10), with mezcal, cayenne and lime, might be the most talked about.
What else you’ll be talking about – the space. Ophelia’s is not for the timid. In addition to being loud, the décor is, let’s just say, revealing. The place is a former brothel after all, so don’t expect simple elegance here. It’s intentionally bawdy, risqué and bold.
If you can, snag a seat that overlooks the downstairs stage. From jazz bands to dueling DJs to graffiti artists, you aren’t going to get bored at Ophelia’s. Between the entertainment, food, drink and décor, it’s nearly sensory overload.
But that’s why you’re here, right? To get an artful explosion of flavors, craftsmanship and gusto that are sure to rub off on you.
Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox
1215 20th St.