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Big and Beautiful

The Cooperage: It’s built. And they will come.


Photography by Shannon McIntyreIt’s been worth the wait.

The Cooperage’s inexorable rise from the sawdust and bones of decades-old Petar’s Restaurant and Lounge long piqued the interest of diners at the perpetually popular Chow located across the street in Lafayette’s La Fiesta Square. Toward the end of construction, which stretched on for months, many a nose was pressed against The Cooperage’s windows.

What they saw was impressive.

Architect Jim Maxwell salvaged Petar’s worn, heavy timbers to craft an upscale yet rustic space with staved barrel chandeliers (a cooper is someone who makes barrels), raw and knotty bar tops, and a communal table anchoring The Cooperage’s wide-open kitchen.

Nearly 300 seats are spread among five distinct areas: an exhibition dining room, a street-side patio, a huge bar, a backroom pub, and a private dining room with views of spits spinning with prime rib, succulent Kurobuta pork, and brined Rocky Jr. chickens.

It’s quite a backdrop for the restaurant’s well-pedigreed team. Andrew McCormick, whose dad has opened more than 90 restaurants, co-owns The Cooperage, and chef-partner Erik Hopfinger has been the opening chef at 15 restaurants in New York and San Francisco. General manager Michael Iglesias hails most recently from Michael Chiarello’s new San Francisco restaurant, Coqueta. All this experience translates into a smooth operation, even on opening night, when I slip in for dinner with a savvy local chef.

We start with warm brussels sprouts shredded and tossed with a silky poached egg, fried shallots, and succulent squares of applewood-smoked bacon. “One of the best salads I’ve had in a long time,” says my companion. He’s sipping The Cooperage’s signature gin and tonic, also remarkable for its colorful and aromatic garnishes of fresh kumquat, bay leaf, and juniper berry.

My Voss water provides a clean foil for Hopfinger’s oysters gratinéed with Pecorino Romano, a dab of aioli, and a drizzle of tequila. They are as rich as Rockefeller.

Hopfinger’s style is “contemporary California comfort food,” a label made clear by his entrées. Marinated white shrimp are fired on the grill and plunged into smoky fresh-milled grits, their tails upright. A moat of creamy shrimp stock and pools of spicy salsa verde bring it all home. It’s a phenomenal dish.

His homey yet refined pot roast brings short ribs braised in rich beef broth, enlivened with sweet baby veggies and pungent streaks of horseradish cream.

Our server’s playful nature is a bit light for the mood; a more deliberate introduction to the restaurant and its wide-ranging menu would have been helpful. On a later visit, when I dine with the general manager from an upscale local restaurant, our waitress is a bit timid for the kitchen’s gutsy presentations. Our salad arrives, for instance, as a miniature head of iceberg lettuce stuffed with blue cheese and impaled by a heavy wood-handled steak knife.

We are offered another knife for our well-seared, bone-in, prime organic—and above all, incredibly juicy—New York steak. The steak’s natural jus renders the side sauces superfluous.   

As soulful as his dishes are—and as intimidating as Hopfinger can be (on Bravo’s Top Chef six years ago, he told Rick Bayless to “go screw” himself)—he has a penchant for the refined. Hopfinger has a private stock of caviar, and many of his specials come laced with truffle.

An example of Hopfinger’s delicacy is the nightly crudo. On this visit, thin shimmering slices of hamachi are flecked with micro cilantro and slivers of pickled jalapeño. The only thing missing is silver chopsticks.

Not all the dishes were dialed in during opening week. The calamari was chewy despite a buttermilk soak; rye croutons were soggy; the rotisserie meats were dry; and two of our three Americana desserts needed work. The pineapple upside-down cake, however, rocked.

Still, we’re impressed. “I would have thought they had been around for some time,” said my general manager friend.

That’s because The Cooperage has a clear concept. From the rustic ingredient-driven food, to the rustic, sustainably sourced cherrywood, to the serving of “tapped” wines, it’s all of a piece.

It’s fitting that the restaurant’s design called for raising wine-barrel chandeliers. “Raising the barrel” is the term that coopers use for toasting wine barrels.

Which inspires a toast of our own: Congratulations to The Cooperage. You’ve raised the bar.

Contact: 32 Lafayette Cir., Lafayette, (925) 298-5915, thecooperagelafayette.com. Lunch and dinner daily, weekend brunch.

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