Venue Voices — Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox Remains the Sexiest Venue in Denver

Venue Voices is a new monthly series shining a spotlight on all the incredible venues Denver has to offer and the people who keep them running. Denver is one of the greatest music cities in the country, having become a mandatory destination for some of the biggest names in music while fostering a vibrant, thriving local scene made up of artists of all types. The over 30 venues that exist in Denver and the surrounding areas make this fact possible for there would be no music scene without places to dance with those you love the most and strangers alike. From massive stadiums to intimate rooms, Venue Voices will take a deep dive into a different Denver venue each month, speaking to the people who run them in order to learn each venue’s history, challenges and triumphs while also taking a look at what the future holds. 

For the next installment of Venue Voices, 303 Magazine spoke with Justin Cucci, CEO of Edible Beats, the eclectic restaurant group responsible for Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox. Cucci spoke about his career as a chef and the story behind Denver’s sexiest spot to indulge in food and music of the highest quality.

READ: Venue Voices — The Historic Mercury Cafe Isn’t Going Anywhere

Have you ever heard of a gastro-brothel? A sex-positive restaurant? A peep show turned music venue? Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox is all of the above and Justin Cucci’s affinity for oddities can be found on every wall and behind every corner. From the bathrooms made of rulers encouraging men to see how they measure up to the bar built out of Jager bottles to the iconic radio wall behind the stage, “museum” would be a fitting addition to the variety of aesthetics Ophelia’s embodies.

Turning an old sex shop into an upscale restaurant and venue might seem far-fetched to most but Cucci is no stranger to thinking outside the box. His first restaurant, Root Down, was originally a gas station. The funeral home that once held the remains of the legendary Buffalo Bill was converted from Olinger’s Mortuary to Cucci’s hip “eatuary,” Linger, in 2011. Now, as CEO of Edible Beats, Cucci also oversees Vital Root, El Five and Root Down DIA in addition to those restaurants previously mentioned.

Airdale, the building that Ophelia’s calls home, is the only building on the National Register of Historic Places that has a history in the sex industry. When Cucci signed his lease in the building in 2014, he wanted to seize the opportunity to highlight the building’s sexy history instead of covering it up. Although he decided not to showcase the 400 steel dildos that were left behind, he did find a muse in a picture on a postcard amidst a pile of other niche vintage stuff. The mysterious and beautiful woman in the photograph captivated Cucci, and he decided to name her Ophelia, which also happened to be the title of one of his favorite songs.

Ophelia's Electric Soapbox

Cucci needed the name to creatively communicate that they weren’t just a restaurant but also a music venue where you could find local and national acts, burlesque and DJ-fueled brunches. He said, “In the old days, they’d put out their soapbox and stand in front of the town and talk to everybody about what they were trying to do, whether it was art or commerce. I just love that idea of a soapbox. In this day and age, it’s an ‘electric soapbox’ because you’re plugging in and making loud statements from that stage.

Cucci’s vision was always for Ophelia’s to be a very inclusive and eclectic environment. The goal was to have the overall experience of music be the focus while also excelling in hospitality with an inspiring menu and thoughtful staff. Cucci has designed the interior to invoke a feeling from his guests. When you walk into Ophelia’s, you aren’t just there for a meal or a show; you’re there for a multi-level experience, physically and emotionally. Risqué old books greet you at the front window. Sultry vintage art lines the walls. Plush velvet booths and a sunken stage pull you deep into the historic venue that Cucci refers to as his “love letter to music.”

Ophelia's Electric Soapbox

Cucci said, “Can we have people look at us the way they look at their favorite band? People have a favorite restaurant, but there’s something about your favorite band that is way more passionate and way more personal. I feel like a lot of our guests have adopted us as their new favorite band. They want to turn their friends onto it. They want their family to see it. It’s hard because the expectations get higher and higher and we have to do this night after night and still make it special and electric and make guests leave with something more than just another night in the restaurant industry. It’s really hard but it’s a challenge that pushes us to get better.”

Cucci has spent most of his life in restaurants, where he “learned everything about life,” from how to walk to flirting while in a dining room. His family owned the famous Waverly Inn in New York in the 1950s. He began working there when he was just eight years old but felt pressure to go to college and get a degree in computer science upon reaching adulthood. He immediately felt a disconnect in his spirit early on in his studies. In 1986, when his first semester finals would potentially get in the way of him seeing the Grateful Dead, he had to choose between his education and his love for music.

“I felt really disconnected while at school,” he said. “But then there was something I was very connected with that was happening in the music scene: Jerry Garcia had just woken up from a coma. I was like, ‘I should be there.’ So I just ditched on finals and flew out to San Francisco and my time as a student was done.”

Although many of Cucci’s family members returned to the Waverly Inn when trying to figure out their next steps in life, it dawned on Cucci that the restaurant life was his next step. He wanted to work in restaurants and build a future in the industry. When his plan to take over the Waverly from his grandparents didn’t work out, Cucci opened two successful restaurants in Key West before opening Root Down in 2008.

However, this early success took time. When Cucci initially moved to Denver in 2001, he got a job at the now-closed Beehive from which he was fired on his first day “because [he] sucked,” as he told 303. Cucci had spun his resume in a way that made it seem like all his years of restaurant experience were in the back of the house working in kitchens when he really only had front-of-house experience. Management immediately recognized this and let him go on the spot. However, this didn’t stop Cucci from returning month after month to ask for the job back.

“I kept going back because I really connected with that kitchen. They were the biggest influence on me with the way they were treating ingredients and the way they were crafting food and looking at it as a story — I fell in love with that.”

Cucci even offered to work for free but was repeatedly told, “No, thank you.” Maybe it was his persistence, or maybe he was just in the right place at the right time, but he was eventually asked, “Can you be here tomorrow at 9 A.M?” to which he replied, “Hell yeah.” Cucci went from being a salad maker for $9 an hour to eventually taking over the job of the chef who hired him. 

Ophelia's Electric Soapbox

When it came time to open Root Down in 2008, Cucci was blown away by Denver’s warm culinary community. He’d once described the space between coasts as “cornfields and mediocrity,” but he now laughs at the naivete that led him to eat his words. On the East Coast, Cucci was trained in the art of independence and apathy. When he arrived in Colorado, he felt and learned empathy and connection unlike anything he’d ever known, which helped him form his philosophy on how he treats his staff and his guests.

In an industry that’s known for having few benefits for workers who grind until they burn out or are used until they’re spit out, Cucci saw an opportunity to leave a legacy bigger than himself. In February 2022, the Edible Beats Restaurant group transitioned to an ESOP structure (Employee Stock Ownership Plan), meaning it is now employee-owned, with Cucci acting as the CEO. The choice to hand the business over to his employees simply felt like the right thing to do. Everyone, from the dishwashers to the general managers, has been committed to Cucci’s vision of how to treat each other and their guests.

“The people who have stuck it out have been through a lot of growing pains,” Cucci said. “That’s why I felt like I shouldn’t sell it to outside people or investors. The people that have been here should be the ones reaping the benefits.”

He went on to say, “I wish I had more advice on how to not burn out in the restaurant industry. It’s like trying to win against the house at a casino; you can never win against the restaurant lifestyle. You can only find moments when you’re ahead and how to work yourself out of being behind. “

Cucci feels lucky to have a team he can trust and a family that ensures he maintains a work-life balance. This allows him to focus on his passions: food, culture and electricity.

“How do I, as CEO, have the culture of what I think we created after all these years and how do we maintain it? Culture is like sand in your hands. Whenever someone new is here, it changes. When it’s wet, it changes. When it’s dry, it changes. It’s always a moving target. How do I keep the spaces electric and sexy and special and something that feels experiential, not just going into a good-looking building? I want you to feel something. I’m lucky to have teams that run things so I can focus on my passions.”

Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox is something genuinely original. A one-of-a-kind revelation found in a pile of mass-produced fast fashion. “I thought I was seeking weirdness but I think the weirdness is equally seeking a home and I’m just a welcoming home. It’s not me particularly.”

If every restaurant in Denver was a dish on a menu, Cucci said Ophelia’s would probably be hot honey cornmeal well-seasoned. “We are cornmeal because we have grit and dirty south. We are comforting. There’s also a little hot honey; it’s sexy, spicy, amped, and charged, but the honey makes the spice go down easier. It’s a sexy, hot honey if there is such a thing. Last, I’m gonna say salt. The rooms are well seasoned, the bands are all well seasoned and the salt is what marries it together.”

A restaurant and music venue found under a hostel that used to be a sex shop is undeniably weird, but if you’re willing to welcome the weirdness and appreciate the history, Ophelia’s might just be your new favorite escape, or, as Cucci prefers, your new favorite band.

The Ophelia’s team is excited about their New Year’s Day Brunch Bash featuring DJ A-L. This experience includes a 2-Course Chef’s Tasting menu with beverage pairings (alcoholic and NA available). You can buy your tickets here.

Check out Ophelia’s full events calendar here.

If you dine at Ophelia’s, be sure to try their chicken and waffles or a delicious pizza made with a 200-year-old starter. Their menu has a variety of gluten-free and vegan options as well.

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