In truth, the owners’ hands built Black Eye from scratch, over many hours (nearly 200 just to expose the brick). But the overall picture, the story the shop evokes, Gregory explains, did come out naturally, born of a desire to be true to Denver’s past.
“I wanted to make sure our shop looked like it belongs in Denver,” says Gregory. “Specifically in this neighborhood, which is where I had my first job when I was fifteen years old.”
Gregory opened Black Eye in 2012, along with designers Dustin Audet and Ali Elman. The Denver native and former history teacher had a vested interest in the city’s Lower Highland district. During his decade working in coffee he had watched rapid growth turn LoHi hipper and more expensive each year. He’d witnessed the destruction of older buildings in favor of new ones, watched rents rise, and looked on as posh businesses multiplied in the once low-key city. In bringing something new to the neighborhood, he desired to push against that process by honoring what history he could.
That started with the building, which is more than 100 years old. The owners worked to keep as much of the original space as possible, adding clean accents that complemented rougher features. But exposing tiled ceilings and brick walls of what was originally a movie theater was only one piece of the team’s preservationist puzzle—Black Eye had to be an ode to the neighborhood’s character, as well.
“It started off originally as a Little Italy,” Gregory says, explaining that Lower Highland was “an area where a lot of betting and maybe less-than-legal activities took place,” including underground boxing matches. “And this is Prohibition-era,” he goes on, “so a lot of liquor-running and speakeasies and stuff. We’re not glorifying crime,” he explains, “just acknowledging the history.”
Looking at the space, a carefully crafted café built into an aged structure, stories start to emerge, and it quickly becomes clear that Black Eye isn’t just your run-of-the-mill, old-timey shop. While it might maintain the clean simplicity common in many modern cafés, its bones are old-school Denver, with tables made from antique wooden grocery skids, yogurt and lattes crafted with milk from a century-old dairy, a rotating menu featuring locally sourced, high-quality meat and produce, mason-jarred drinks, and a philosophy of creating everything from sodas to scones in house. Beans are roasted off-site, in a facility shared with another roasting company, a testament to the friendliness of Denver’s coffee community.
An enormous mural of a mustachioed boxer fighting a kangaroo greets patrons on the street, with the window’s bright, gold-leaf logo drawing the eye from several blocks away. These might seem like elaborate flourishes, but Black Eye was put together on a budget, albeit with great attention to detail. By working with used items—like a vintage, red “coffee shop” neon sign—and crafting much of the furnishings by hand, the owners ended up with a space that doesn’t feel stuffy or overwrought. It’s hip, but in a homespun way. In other words, it’s a perfect addition to an up-and-coming neighborhood with blue-collar roots.
“We’re going into a neighborhood that is rapidly changing and has always had more of a working-class feel,” says Gregory. “And coffee was originally a working-man’s beverage. So we’re bringing those two histories together.”
Modern touches like a magazine pop-up titled “Walled In” along a back wall (with limited-edition publications curated by Gregory), a roll-up garage door next to the entrance, and tapped cold brew make the simple space feel dynamic. Though the kitchen is tiny, it puts out inventive savory sandwiches on house-made breads, bright shades of French macarons, and ever-changing farm-to-table pastries. By bringing in guest roasters like Ceremony Coffee, Sightglass Coffee, and Los Angeles’ Bar Nine, Black Eye remains tethered to a larger community, too, and keeps patrons excited with a shifting menu of beans for pour-over, Fetco, and espresso.
It was only after settling on their heavyweight-themed name and logo that the owners learned their space had once been home to bookies. Gregory says he and his business partners, including a new partner, Steven Waters, haven’t yet decided if their second location—a bar and café synthesis in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, opening later this year—will bear the same name. Undoubtedly it will take on some of the personality of that neighborhood, with intentional touches all its own.
—Regan Crisp is Fresh Cup’s associate editor.