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Ay Caramba! Stunning new Coba Cocina restaurant unveiled in Lexington

by Steve Coomes

The main floor dining room at Coba Cocina. (All photos by Steve Coomes)

LEXINGTON, Ky.—Last Saturday’s soft opening dinner at Coba Cocina delivered on the promises its three owners gave me months ago during interviews for another story. All three gushed, saying it “is a restaurant like nothing you’ve ever seen, not even in pictures.”

They were right. It’s easily one of the most beautiful eateries on this side of the Mississippi, and it would make a stir even in jaded Los Angeles.

The stunning new build set adjacent to the city’s Idle Hour shopping center employs lighted water features that change from blue to red to green and marble bar tops lighted from below to a ghostly pearlescent glow.

A two-story tubular jellyfish aquarium in the main dining room punctuates the restaurant’s underwater theme, and the whole room’s luminous blue accent lighting makes diners feel suspended in liquid.

Stairs up to the Coba Cantina.

Coba, the first half of its name, is the location of an ancient Mayan ruin in an area of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula featuring many cenotés, natural pits that funnel water into underground passages where it gathers in warm pools.

Architect Todd Ott and interior designer Brittney Lavens of Lexington-based CMW Inc. did extensive research on the area to yield a creation including a blend of semi-private and wide-open dining and bar areas that simulate the cenotés’ mix of wide and narrow spaces.

Pairs of tables for six are nestled in high walled and cozy clam shaped nooks that allow 12 diners to face each other across a modest gap where servers enter and exit. Other parts of the dining room are open to dozens of tables and enjoy endless headroom.

“So what do you think?” asked Phil Greer, founder and CEO of Greer Co.’s, franchisee of 35 Cheddar’s restaurants and hotels here and around the Southeast U.S.

The 66-year-old former school teacher’s grin belies his pride in the new restaurant, a concept he owns with son and partner, Lee Greer, and partner Steve Pottinger. When I told him the facility was gorgeous, he replied, “I told you it would be something else.”

Dining tables for larger parties face each other in semi-private nooks.

And it is.

Something astonishingly expensive, for sure, but likely not too pricey for Greer Co.’s, which spends about $2.5 million to construct every Cheddar’s unit. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me if Coba Cocina cost at least double that—land not included. For now, none of the owners are saying how much.

“Let’s just say we have a good relationship with the bank,” said Pottinger, Greer Co.’s chief operating officer, told me in January.

To service that relationship properly, Coba Cocina’s team will need to fill the restaurant’s 400 seats as often as possible for daily lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch dayparts.

For a restaurant of its size, that’s an order taller than its jellyfish tank, but for operators whose Cheddar’s units seat nearly the same number and post average unit revenue of more than $4 million, it’s a safe bet they can do it.

Stairs leading down to the main dining room.

But wait, there’s more.

Coba Cocina boasts an elegant first floor lounge, plus a second-floor bar named Coba Cantina, a perch from which drinkers gaze down into the cavernous dining room.

To return to the dining room, one navigates brilliantly lighted staircases that look straight out of the Death Star if it had a disco. The place is an adult fun house sans mirrors.

The restaurant’s main floor includes a sweets stop named Cocoh! Confectioner, which sells baked goods, gelato and chocolate delicasies.

(After our meal, we were directed there for a parting treat, but eager as we were to see the second half of the U of L v. Syracuse game that night, we couldn’t wait for the five-deep crowd in front of the dessert cases to thin out. We’ll be back soon enough to see what we missed.)

The food is Latin themed and twisted to give new flavors to old standards. Since we were there for a soft-opening — a training night with real customers — it’s not fair to position this as a review, so I’ll not elaborate on the food or service.

But much like Greer Co.’s Cheddar’s units, portions are ample and delivered at modest costs (the priciest item is filet mignon at $24, but most entrees are closer to $12). Again, volume will be needed to make Coba Cocina profitable, but these guys know that drill well.

If you’re in Lexington, it’s a must see. Its location (2041 Richmond Rd.) is just 10 minutes from downtown and the route there includes lots of historic and beautiful homes, including Henry Clay’s former manse.

When I swing back through the city soon, I’ll return with more details.

A four-person booth backed by the two-story jellyfish tank.

The grand opening is today, March 18.

Hours are 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu.; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri., Sat.; 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun. The Cantina stays open one hour later every day except Sunday, and Cocoh! Confectioner is open from 6:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat., and 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.

Side dishes: An excellent newish restaurant in downtown Lexington is The Village Idiot, a gastropub that opened in Sept. 2012. Great food, great vibe, great beer, food and service. It’s located at 307 W. Short Street by Cheapside and Dudley’s, if you’re familiar with the town.

Across the street is Table 310, which I haven’t made it to yet, but has gotten rave reviews. Imagine a mash-up of The Blind Pig and Lilly’s and you’re on the right track.

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