After more than a year’s worth of speculation and curiosity, the public finally has its opportunity to experience all that Coba Cocina, the new restaurant at the corner of Richmond Road and St. Margaret Drive in the Idle Hour Shopping Center, has to offer.
And it is a lot.
From the food to the architecture to the unique concept, Coba Cocina is certainly a distinct Lexington restaurant. It is also a dream years in the making for the project’s founders, father-and-son Phil and Lee Greer of Greer Companies, a local hospitality and real estate development company headquartered in Lexington whose portfolio also includes 35 Cheddar’s restaurants in Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, West Virginia and North Carolina.
The restaurant, which opened in mid-March, is actually three separate, but complementary, concepts: Cocoh! Confectioner, a bakery, cafe and gelateria; Cobar Cantina, an upstairs lounge with a specific small- plate (tapas) menu; and Coba Cocina, the intricately decorated downstairs restaurant with seating for nearly 230 people (the entire building can sit upward of 400 people).
The cuisine, managed by chef Alejandro Velasquez, is “Pan-American,” according to Lee Greer, and is inspired by dishes from Mexico, South America and Latin America, the Baja and Texas. Coba menu specialities include ceviche, brisket tacos, a Cubano sandwich, agave-barbecue glazed ribs, chicken Monterey and “pescado de Yucatan.” Coba will offer lunch and dinner, as well as a variety of breakfast items in Cocoh.
The restaurant is named after the city of Coba, on the eastern Gulf Coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, which is a well-known destination because of its Mayan ruins.
Its interior was inspired by “cenotes” — sea caves characteristic of Yucatan that were important sources of water and other aspects of the Mayan civilization. The piece de resistance of the restaurant is a gargantuan, 3,000-gallon jellyfish aquarium — the largest private container of its kind in the world — home to 100 moon jellyfish. At 20 feet high, the cylindrical aquarium is visible from nearly everywhere in the nearly 12,000-square-foot building.
Many other features in the restaurant feed into this nautical and cenote-cave theme, from the 38-foot-wide dome perched on top of the building to the sparkling blue ceiling panels and the wavy, scale-like “fish panel” walls. Many other pieces and installations play into the Mayan theme, with a row of panels of “glyphs” lining the exterior and ornate, hand-hammered front door pulls at the front entrance.
“Everything has a purpose; every little detail has a story for us,” Greer said. “Hopefully it comes together so when you’re driving by at night it looks like something different but cool. And something Lexington can be proud of.”
Having been involved in the restaurant industry for several years, Greer wanted to incorporate a number of unique fixtures and features into Coba Cocina that he has always thought would be beneficial to restaurants, such as tables for large groups with a small path down the middle for easier access and a video screen that displays waiting times for guests in real time.
“This is something I’ve always wanted,” Greer said. “I don’t want people wondering how many people are in front of them or how much longer they’ll have to wait.”
Dozens of local and central Kentucky craftspeople and professionals contributed to specific components of the building’s full rendering, such as Mike Angelucci, whose company, Angelucci Acoustical, constructed the the restaurant’s large domes, and Bryan Uittenbogaard from Garrard Wood Products, who fashioned the interior’s distinctive walls (see page 8.) Greer said he is excited finally to be able to show off all the work that went into the building, which was designed by architect Todd Ott.
“When this thing was under construction, it was a hodgepodge of all kinds of crazy stuff,” Greer said. “You had a bunch of people thinking we’d just dumped a bunch of leftover building material on to a job site and started throwing it together. But now, with the outside really coming together and done, you can get a full appreciation. It is an amazing work of art by the architects and all the craftspeople we had working on it.”
Greer wouldn’t provide the exact amount invested for the multi-million-dollar restaurant, which he said will employ about 200 people, but he did acknowledge that opening more Coba Cocina locations (or perhaps one of the three different concepts) could be a possibility after gauging the success of the initial restaurant’s performance, from the food to the service to the design.
“Frankly, this one could never make money; there’s just too much in it,” Greer said. “This is for Lexington, and we want to get it right. ... If you’re ever looking for a return on investment, you’ll never get it in just one. It’ll take several of these.”