With its golden dome, colorful lighting and huge jellyfish tank, the new Coba Cocina building on Richmond Road has created a lot of buzz.
The public will get its first look — and taste — Monday when Greer Companies opens the 400-seat restaurant, bar and confectionery, which serves Latin-inspired food at moderate prices in a Vegas atmosphere.
"We're hoping to wow people with the building," said Lee Greer, president of the Lexington-based company. "The food is the best I've ever had. If we can nail the service — we're aiming for a New Orleans level of service — we'll have something special."
Coba Cocina is the prototype for what Greer hopes will become a restaurant chain. In many ways, it is a collection of the favorite things he and his father have seen and tasted in their travels throughout Latin America.
Phil Greer started the commercial real estate development and hospitality company in the late 1980s after many years as a teacher and coach at Tates Creek High School. Greer Companies owns a number of franchised hotels and restaurants, including 35 Cheddar's in Kentucky and five other states.
After the University of Virginia and a brief career as an investment banker in New York, Lee Greer, 36, came home to work with his father. He immersed himself in the restaurant business and began gathering ideas for creating their own concept.
Many of those ideas found their way into the unique building designed by architect Todd Ott and interior designer Brittney Lavens of Lexington-based CMW Inc.
"It was all just described to us in adjectives," Ott said of the instructions they received from the Greers. "Phil said, 'Go away for a month and come back and wow me. If you wow me, you get the job.'"
Ott and Lavens spent the time researching Mesoamerican culture, ancient Incan and Mayan architecture and Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. Coba is a site of Mayan ruins in the Yucatán. Cocina is Spanish for kitchen.
The Yucatán is famous for cenotes — deep natural pits leading to water-filled caves. Coba Cocina is designed to make customers feel as if they are sitting inside one.
Ott said almost everything in the building is custom-made. There are wavelike panels of precision-cut wood on some walls and translucent wave panels over lighted ceilings.
Six chandeliers, which resemble Dale Chihuly sculptures, each contain 125 pieces of Italian glass hand-blown in Poland. Other lighting is computerized so color schemes can be changed to create different moods.
A column-shaped aquarium, 18 feet tall and six feet in diameter, contains more than 300 jellyfish. The column rises to a gold dome in the center of the restaurant, giving the illusion of sunlight filtering into a cenote.
The reception desk and bar tops are made of backlit onyx. There are terrazzo and bamboo floors, and walls with enough curves to make a drywall mason cry. There are water walls, glass staircases and large expanses of iridescent tile.
"Some of the most exceptional craftsmanship was done locally," construction manager Mike Balog said. "We tried to use as much Lexington talent as we could."
Lee Greer wouldn't say how much the family-owned company has invested in the building, although he acknowledged it is more than the $4.5 million estimate on the construction permit. Site acquisition and preparation cost an additional $1.2 million.
The building is designed to impress, but Greer knows that what will make customers come back is great food, service and value. That is the responsibility of a team of restaurant industry veterans: development director Larry Kerns, general manager Bahman Fakharpour and Alejandro and Shanyn Velasquez, husband-and-wife chefs from Texas.
Alejandro Velasquez oversees a high-tech kitchen designed to quickly turn fresh ingredients into dishes served with just the right temperature and presentation. Of the restaurant's 200 employees, 40 work in the kitchen.
"Our food is simple, but it has a lot of flavor," said Velasquez, a second- generation chef. "It's been a great brainstorming effort to figure all of this out."
The menu includes creative adaptations of tacos, fajitas and other traditional Mexican dishes. Among the signature entrees are agave-glazed salmon and barbecued ribs, specialty burgers, Cuban sandwiches, chicken, tilapia and steaks.
Only four entrees are priced at more than $13. At $24, filet mignon is the most expensive item on the menu. The restaurant also serves weekday lunches and Sunday brunch, with no entrees priced at more than $9.
The upstairs Cobar Cantina has a large selection of beer and wine, premium bourbons and tequilas, specialty margaritas and signature cocktails. Cobar also has small-plate "tapas" dishes priced from $4 to $8.
A third concept within the restaurant is Cocoh!, serving gelato, coffees, confections, cakes and other baked goods. Pastry chef Shanyn Velasquez directs this kid-friendly operation.
Lee Greer said he and his team want Coba Cocina to be a unique experience — one that will become so popular in Lexington that it will create a market for expansion and make their big investment pay off.
"Everything I've ever done in some form or fashion is in this building," Greer said. "We knew it would take a lot of investment. We wanted to do it in Lexington, get it right and see where it goes."
If you go
What: Restaurant serving Latin American-inspired food in a Las Vegas atmosphere. Also has a Latin lounge with signature cocktails and tapas dishes and a confectionery with gelato, premium coffees, fresh baked goods and pastries.
Where: 2041 Richmond Rd., at St. Margaret Dr.
Coba Cocina hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu.; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri., Sat.; 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun. (Cobar Cantina stays open one hour later every day except Sunday.)
Cocoh! Confectioner hours: 6:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.
Learn more: (859) 523-8484 or Cobacocina.com
Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com.