Dec. 31, 2014, marked the night La Coop Bistro a Vins closed for good.
The little restaurant that could, and did, produce some of the city’s best meals over the past two and a half years served its final dinners on New Year’s Eve. With its closure, only two French restaurants remain operating in Louisville: the equally relaxed Brasserie Provence and the venerable Le Relais Bistro.
Had you come off the street to eat that evening, it wouldn’t have been immediately clear this was the end for La Coop, its “Big Night” without the timpano. The place was abuzz, cheerful and loud, every table full for two reservations-only seatings.
The five-course, prix fixe menu provided one clue to the evening’s significance: Atop the simple white sheet, the word “Fin!” printed in bold black letters, followed by the dinner lineup. No goodbyes or “thanks for your support” well wishes common to such events, just dishes and descriptions. Business nearly as usual.
Restaurant closures commonly occur without warning or explanation, but this one was planned. La Coop’s five partners, Brett Davis, Steven Ton, Michael Ton, Chip Hamm, and Bobby Benjamin (also La Coop’s executive chef), who make up Falls City Hospitality Group, announced the impending closure one month ago.
They didn’t pull the plug because La Coop was hurting. It was plenty healthy, but just not as vigorous as its owners wanted. According to partner Brett Davis, the restaurant made money and could have gone on operating.
But it had to close the cage so the quartet could devote its energies to larger and more profitable projects. (Two new restaurants in Louisville are slated for next year, and each will dwarf La Coop in size and scope.) Like a diva, La Coop demanded time and attention from all involved, especially Benjamin, who spent endless hours tweaking and crafting its food and training his kitchen team.
Want proof of his dedication to La Coop?
“I’ve been sleeping on a blow-up mattress upstairs getting ready for tonight,” Benjamin said. He wore his customary black T-shirt, black apron, black pants and shoes, but they could have served as the misty-eyed man’s mourning clothes.
“I’ve cried a lot about this,” Benjamin added. Yes, even an extremely disciplined and demanding chef has a heart. “I never thought I’d close a restaurant. This is hard.”
Dinner was delicious, of course, each dish a tribute to favorites featured on past La Coop menus. The crowd supped on beef, shellfish, pork belly, Brussels sprouts, beignets and more. It was a dandy of a diet buster that might have murdered some New Year’s diet resolutions were it served one week later.
Davis, who dined at a table next to ours, fetched a bottle of Chateau Corton Grancy for his table and decanted the 2006 grand cru pinot noir deftly by the light of his iPhone. Though he said no staff farewell party was scheduled that night, it surely wasn’t the only special bottle he opened Wednesday.
“We’ve got some bubbly to share with them tonight, but it’s New Year’s, and they’d rather go out than hang around,” he said.
Nearly every course was served in the restaurant’s tiny cast-iron dishes. They may have made plate-up easy on the kitchen team, but cleaning hundreds of them by hand had to have been a taste of hell. When I asked Benjamin if his dishwasher hated his dish choice, he said, “He’s new, just started a few days ago. So he probably doesn’t know the difference.”
And probably never will, given that his job has now ended. La Coop’s terminus left a couple dozen employees looking for work, including Benjamin’s veteran kitchen staff. Finding openings for them will be hard since restaurants are heading into the slow season. Few will be hiring before Derby.
Our server said the closure gave him the nudge he needed “to go ahead and get out of the restaurant industry,” and that he’s looking forward to a new job with an event planning company.
As it should be, the night was a fond farewell that never became maudlin or raucous. It was like every typically busy Saturday night there, save for the ladies’ sparkly New Year’s Eve dresses. Busy, bustling and exceptional. Everything we all loved and will miss about La Coop.
That the restaurant’s death was nigh wasn’t obvious when we left at 11:30 p.m. (Perhaps the Grim Reaper dresses better these days and carries a wine glass instead of a sickle.) Much of the second seating crowd remained as we left, and its mood was ebullient. Were we not scheduled for another stop, our party of four would have stayed for cocktails.
The mood was visibly more subdued in the kitchen, where the crew went about its final cleanup with grim resolve — especially Benjamin, who seemed lost in thought as he polished a glass partition. Usually cooks get a burst of energy at closing time, and they rush to scrub and polish the acres of stainless steel in anticipation of hitting the town. That typical enthusiasm appeared to be in short supply.
Davis said the Ton brothers weren’t coming by to toast the end because they were busy at two of their other three restaurants, Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse & Raw Bar and Basa Modern Vietnamese. (The quartet’s third restaurant, Union Common, is located in Nashville.) New Year’s Eve is, after all, one of the busiest nights of the year.
“There’s a lot going on outside of this,” Davis said flatly.
He was comparatively cheerful earlier in the evening when in the role of Master Sommelier and sharing several handpicked bottles of wine with guests waiting for the evening’s second seating. Was the finality of it all kicking in for him? After all, he, like Benjamin, played a significant role at La Coop, most notably in its carefully chosen wine list and bar.
“Tomorrow’s another day,” he said with a tired grin and a slight shrug. “This one’s been fun.”
Correction: The first version of this post omitted one of the restaurant’s five owners; IL regrets the error.