Phil and Lee Greer were on their way to dinner one night during a business conference in Las Vegas when they saw a cylindrical aquarium with jellyfish at the Seahorse Lounge at Caesars Palace.
The Greers — father and son — already had the idea for an aquarium in the restaurant they were planning on Richmond Road in the Idle Hour Shopping Center. But the light bulb came on in that lounge in 2009.
"Jellyfish," Lee Greer said.
He added, laughing, "We said, 'This is great, but it's not big enough by Kentucky standards. What if we double the bet and make it twice the size?'"
That's what they did.
A cylindrical glass aquarium, 18 feet tall, six feet in diameter and teeming with jellyfish, is the centerpiece for their new restaurant, Coba Cocina, at 2041 Richmond Road, scheduled to open March 18. The aquarium is visible throughout the two-story restaurant.
On Wednesday morning, Jeff Turner, owner of Reef Aquaria Design in Coconut Creek, Fla., who designed the one-of-a-kind aquarium, stepped on a lift that raised him to the top of the tank. He poured 100 moon jellies into the water.
Lee Greer stood watching, beaming with pride.
"You would have to pay to see this attraction anywhere else," he said. Greer called the aquarium "captivating. It's mesmerizing."
"This was our dream. We've never seen anything exactly like this," he said. "We came up with a dream on paper. Sometimes reality doesn't meet the vision. But this turned out so beautiful."
"We hope it's something Lexington can be proud of," he said. "I think people from far and wide will come to see it, and see the restaurant."
The jellies — from babies the size of a thimble to others about 3 inches in diameter — swam slowly around the cylinder, turning from blue to red as the underwater lights changed colors.
Turner said he thinks the Greers' 3,000-gallon saltwater aquarium is "the world's largest privately owned jellyfish aquarium." The Greers said it's twice the size of the aquarium they saw at Caesars Palace.
The Greers loved fish tanks "even before we discovered jellies," Lee Greer said. The two men own 35 Cheddar's restaurants in Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia; each has a 500-gallon freshwater tank.
Turner designs custom living reefs and jellyfish aquariums all over the world. He built the Indo-Pacific coral reef aquarium that opened about five years ago in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington.
"Our jellyfish are aquacultured and arrive in special insulated containers via FedEx," he said. More jellies will be added to the Coba aquarium over the next couple of months until there is a population of about 300. "That's a balanced number for the size of the tank," Turner said.
Turner and his son Joey arrived in Lexington on Monday to prepare the tank, install the jellies and get them settled. Joey, a certified scuba diver, donned full diving gear to enter the aquarium through a top access panel and clean the aquarium floor.
The glass cylinder was custom-made in Colorado and was trucked to Kentucky. It sits on a 4-foot round base decorated with hand-cut, hand-set Italian tiles.
The most difficult aspect of having jellyfish is keeping them suspended in the 65-degree water, Turner said. For the Coba aquarium, he designed a center column for the aquarium that contains a pump that keeps the water flowing in a counter-clockwise direction — "because we're in the northern hemisphere," he said.
Jellyfish eat 24 hours a day in the open ocean. Moon jellies mainly feed at night, but at the restaurant, they will also be fed at lunchtime so guests can see them eat, Turner said.
"We feed our moon jellies a variety of enriched foods several times a day to keep them healthy and growing," he said. Frozen marine plankton and live brine shrimp will be the main diet of the Coba jellyfish. Full-grown moon jellies get to be about 8 inches in diameter.
At the back of the restaurant building is the custom-designed filtration room that Turner calls "life support" for the aquarium. That's where the water is sterilized and chilled to 65 degrees, and waste from the jellyfish is filtered out.
The Greers' restaurant is named for Coba, Mexico, a city in the heart of the ruins of pre-Columbian Mayan civilization.
Lee Greer said food will be "high-end, Mayan-inspired Pan-American cuisine with dishes from South and Central America, plus North American." A portion of the first floor is a cafe with a bakery that will serve homemade Italian gelato ice cream.
The father and son long dreamed of having their own restaurant, done just the way they wanted, Lee Greer said. "The idea for this restaurant was formulated over the last 10 years. We started working on the menu five years ago."
BY THE NUMBERS
Phil and Lee Greers' restaurant is named for Coba, Mexico, a city in the heart of the ruins of pre-Columbian Mayan civilization.
100: The number of moon jellies in aquarium now.
300: The number of jellies that will be in the aquarium in three months.
World's largest private jellyfish aquarium: 18 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter.
More than 3,000 gallons of water in aquarium.
Temperature of water: 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cheddar's restaurants owned by Greers: 35.
Beverly Fortune: (859) 231-3251. Twitter: @BFortune2010.