Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox, in Denver, defies most attempts at categorization. It is a restaurant and a bar first, but most nights of the week it doubles as a live music venue. When there’s no music, you may see a major sports game projected onto the space’s 22-foot screen.
To add another layer of intrigue, the restaurant is housed in a historic Victorian building from the 1890s with a sordid history: over the years it’s been used as a bordello, an adult video store, and a peep show. As Chef/Owner Justin Cucci explains, he saw in the space the perfect opportunity to marry food, music, and sex in one experience.
“Normally you listen to music, and everything else is a third-hand experience: shitty beer, mediocre food, it smells,” he says. “I wanted to do something like the old-school jazz and supper clubs where you could go out on a date and experience some live music but also have great service, hospitality, and food. You can start here, and you can end here.”
We asked Justin all about the unique experience at Ophelia’s and how he delivers on expectations for his many diverse guests. Here’s how he pulls it off.
A space for every experience
To set up the space for Ophelia’s, Justin and his team dug out the basement of the building and cut a hole in the first floor, so the stage is actually set in the basement. There’s a large mezzanine that wraps around the perimeter, so people sitting upstairs can also see the music below.
Dining tables are upstairs and lounge-y couches downstairs, along with more dining tables and a big dance floor. On a typical night when a band is performing, half of the crowd may be seated while the other half stands and hits the dance floor.
The new gastropub
Justin dubbed Ophelia’s a “gastrobrothel” as a nod to the prevalent gastropub concept: food that’s familiar, comfortable, but exceptional. Here, he’s taking it one step further with a new label, allowing him to make up his own rules for the food.
“At the core we’re a farm-to-table company; we’re super into organic and local food. We wanted to embody all of that in this restaurant even though it’s a music venue as well. We don’t hold hospitality as an afterthought.”
When Ophelia’s first opened, Justin admits his team was challenged to help guests understand what the concept was — that you could hit up happy hour, dine, and see a show all in one experience. Many people thought it was only a music venue. Slowly, though, they began to catch on; now, many guests come two hours before their show starts to enjoy a three-course meal with wine and cocktails.
Music for every guest, every age
Justin works with a talent booker to identify bands that make sense in the context of Ophelia’s. “We want it to fit here, so if you’re eating you’re not going to be put off because there’s a metal band playing,” he explains.
The crowd at Ophelia’s is diverse and ever-changing, depending on the band playing on a given night. Some evenings the room will be packed with 22-year-olds; other nights it’s 50-somethings listening to bluegrass. On any given night there are people in their 20s and people in their 60s. It’s critical for the staff to be able to adapt and let the musicians create the atmosphere on a nightly basis instead of trying to force people into certain experiences.
Justin admits that he almost never makes money on the bands; if he’s lucky he will break even. The point is to bring in iconic, high-quality acts (George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic were recent guests) and offer exceptional food and drinks to create a memorable experience.
With so many moving pieces and diverse guests, setting and exceeding expectations is a challenge — and a priority. The staff at Ophelia’s has to make sure everyone feels comfortable, no matter what kind of experience they’re seeking.
“If people want to dance and go crazy, that’s great. If people want to grab a booth and have a server and eat and watch music, that’s great. We like to let the guest decide — we’re just there to provide the support.”
For example, if a band starts playing at 9 p.m., guests can come in and dine until 9 p.m. without buying a ticket to the show. By that time many dinner guests leave anyway, but if some are still eating and want to stay for the music, the server may offer them a discounted ticket to the show so they feel welcome to linger.
The experience requires additional expertise from the staff, too — not only do they need to deliver food and hospitality, they need to understand when to be available to serve drinks and when to fall back and let people let loose, dance, and have fun.