You know you're walking into a Justin Cucci restaurant when his signature found-good installations – collections of glass pinball tops, 100 x-ray rollers, more than 1,000 yardsticks – swallow you whole and spit you into an alternative reality, fun house where the food is sinfully flavorful, the spirit is high, and the experience is downright engrossing. Discretely planted on 20th, between Larimer and Lawrence streets in the historic Airedale building, the long-awaited Ophelia's will open her electric soapbox doors on Tuesday April 14.
Before morphing into its sexy present-self – a project that took Cucci's Edible Beats restaurant group more than three years to complete – the century-old brick structure, ripe with seediness, housed peep shows, porn shops and adult book and video stores.
Now, upon entering the main floor of the "gastro brothel," the dining room surrounds a bar built from pinball machine tops. There is an undeniable grit, reminiscent of Moulin Rouge, that cloaks the space. Cucci describes his restaurants as "feminine" and talks about a muse, a mysterious woman he discovered on Etsy who has since been called Ophelia. This woman is depicted in grainy black-and-white on one of the storied, exposed brick walls.
This new attraction brings a simple beverage program to its guests, spotlighting no more than four-ingredient-cocktails with names like Diamond Lil's and Automatic Slim's – rejects during the restaurant-naming process. The food menu, created by Edible Beats' culinary director Daniel Asher and Ophelia's executive chef Jeremy Kittelson – is broken down into unfussy categories, largely leaning in the local, farm-to-table fashion found at Root Downand Linger. Among the highlights, the Spring Cheese Incident – a hearth fire skillet of gooey mixed herbs and cheeses topped with asparagus, nettles, blistered cherry tomatoes, zucchini pistou and marcona almonds and the chilled spring pea and mint soup.
Beyond food and drinks, there is an unmissable 20-by-20 gaping hole square in the center of the dining room floor. If you peer down and in, a DJ stand and stage adorned with hundreds of hand-held transistor radios awaits live music, from hip-hop to country, and alternative entertainment – think cook-offs, lip-sync wars and yes, burlesque. A second Jägermeister emerald green bar and dining tables surround the stage. The goal is to tie the individually high-end food, hospitality, and music experiences together seamlessly. Upstairs, business-travelers will eventually be able to hang their hats at the boutique Hostel Fish. Cucci says this is the biggest project he and his team have tackled to date.
"I'd rather be saved by critics than ruined by praise," says Justin Cucci, the mastermind behind Ophelia's and the rest of the Edible Beats portfolio.
Though most would exhale a sigh of relief following the climax of a massive build-out like Ophelia's, Cucci still has a couple concepts in the cooker, including Vital Root, a strictly vegetarian, quick-serve shop on Tennyson Street and another LoHi eatery, that pushes the kitchen into the dining area and focuses on tapas of Spain, North Africa and the Middle East. He hopes to have one of the two restaurants completed by the end of the year.