New Latin-Inspired Restaurant Cocodrilo Comes to Libbie & Grove | To eat
By Megan Marconyak Special Envoy
Sure, it might have seemed a little crazy for Rob Long to plan a new restaurant in the former Café Caturra space at Libbie & Grove as he struggled to keep River City Roll afloat amid the pandemic, but he doesn’t. just couldn’t let the opportunity slip away.
An investment banker turned restauranteur, Long spent a few years in Texas and loved all the morning options for tacos and breakfast coffee. Flash forward to a 10-day trip to Mexico in 2019 to retrieve a barrel of Herradura tequila where he had the opportunity to visit off-the-beaten-path restaurants and a family trip where he visited a few tex-mex breakfasts only and dinner-only concepts, and he began to wonder why no one was combining these influences in a Latin American-inspired restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Several months of work and waiting later, Cocodrilo is gearing up for a March 8 opening and co-owners and executive chefs Brandon MacConnell and Brad Slemaker couldn’t be more ready. “It’s only been about 10 months,” MacConnell says sarcastically. Like most anyone trying to complete a project these days, the Cocodrilo team has been hit with delays related to shipping, construction, worker availability, and staffing. But with the kitchen complete and the finishing touches underway in the dining room, they begin staff training this week.
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Cocodrilo is Spanish for Crocodile and not only does it reflect the style of the restaurant, but it’s also a nod to Lemaire (and the famous alligators that lived there) where Slemaker, MacConnell and general manager Tara Schleinkofer hung out. all met.
Slemaker is also currently the chef of River City Roll, where he oversees high turnovers of traditional staple foods. He and Long were looking for an opportunity to let him unleash more of those Lemaire skills at an upscale restaurant. “We can’t get enough of the reputation of the bowling alleys there,” Long said. “People don’t even order some of his best dishes.” In this new concept, Slemaker and MacConnell give free rein to their inspiration.
The interior of Café Caturra has been totally redesigned into an elegant 89-seat dining room where diners have a full view of the state-of-the-art stainless steel kitchen. “You’ll be able to see your food being prepared without having to shell out big bucks for a chef’s table experience,” says Long.
The centerpiece of this kitchen is a grill and open-fire oven that was purchased from Prime 109, a Charlottesville restaurant that closed during the pandemic. It’s literally at the center of the restaurant with the layout built around it. It is also the centerpiece of the menu. “We try to incorporate something of it into every dish and even some cocktails,” says Slemaker.
The name may be Spanish, but as MacConnell says, “We’re not a ‘Let’s get the Mexican!’ kind of place… the food will be Latin American inspired, but we don’t stick to any tradition or country. We try to do unknown things.
The menu is in its final stages of development and while I’ve sworn to secrecy while the chefs finalize the plan, I can say there will be a range of small plates to share along with entrees and tacos. A sneak peek: Slemaker is working on perfecting gnocchi made with ancestral masa. “We want to provide an elevated dining experience in a casual and comfortable way,” says Long. “You can walk in on Tuesday and have a taco and a beer and spend $16, then come back on Saturday for a date and spend $80 on chipotle rib steak and other high-end fare.”
Murals by Nils Westergard, colorful tiles along the large bar, and a signature orange with pops of yellow, blue, and orange offset clean whites and natural tones to complement the dining area. The 25 seater front patio is ready to roll and in the spring they will be adding a 55 seater patio in the back. This puts the full capacity of around 175 guests with plenty of configurations for private events.
Schleinkofer also oversees the beverage program, which will include two frozen drinks – one will likely always be a changing margarita, two cocktails on tap, six rotating local beers and a selection of Latin American wines by the glass as well as a list longer bottles.
At first the restaurant will only open for dinner, but after a few months look for breakfast and lunch times. You’ll be able to walk in and have breakfast or lunch in a quick 10 minutes with an emphasis on take-out packaging that maintains quality: “The take-out breakfast tacos will be as good as they are at the restaurant “. said Long. A full coffee and espresso program is also in the works, also to be enjoyed on the spot or to take away in signature orange cups emblazoned with the Cocodrilo logo.
Megan Marconyak has been enthusiastically devouring all the fresh flavors she can find and capturing them in writing for over 15 years. Drool over her cooking adventures and send her your #RVADine tips on Instagram @MeganMarcoStyle.