If you were hoping to dine at Andrew McCormick and Erik Hopfinger's just-opened Cooperage in Lafayette at an appropriate-for-suburbia dinner hour without reservations, we've got bad news. The place has been jammed almost from the day it opened -- and it's no wonder.
From its perch on Lafayette Circle, the stylish new restaurant beckons passers-by with its barrel-stave chairs and patio tables out front and a welcoming, buzzy vibe inside. It's hard to believe this was ever Petar's, the 1950s-era restaurant whose popularity had absolutely nothing to do with its food and everything to do with its bar.
The Cooperage is rustic and chic at the same time: a large space divided into smaller rooms, including a Board Room for private parties in back, and a bar area that retains its dining allure by tucking cozy booths for two along the wall. A cooper, of course, is a barrel maker, so partially finished barrels hang overhead as sophisticated light fixtures, and you see echoes of polished woodcraft throughout.
It's a happy thing when a restaurant pro opens a new bistro in his hometown. Make it a San Francisco restaurateur and Lafayette resident with a McCormick & Schmick's pedigree, and you get a kitchen helmed by Hopfinger, a "Top Chef" alum, whose resume includes stints at the city's Waterfront, Butterfly and Spoon -- and a restaurant run by general manager Michael Iglesias, who helped Michael Chiarello open Coqueta, which just scored a James Beard nomination for the nation's best new restaurant.
So when you sit down for that fashionably late dinner reservation you managed to score, the first order of business is the craft cocktail menu ($12), where the attractions range from a mezcal Negroni to a Seasonal G+T, a Coqueta-influenced gintonic made on this particular evening with blood orange and juniper berries. Divine. And yes, pronounced without the "and."
With a cocktail in hand, it's time to peruse the starters -- Oysters Cooperage ($12), perhaps, or a grilled asparagus salad with a goat cheese vinaigrette ($9). We opted for the warm Brussels sprout salad ($10), a small pyramid of shredded Brussels sprouts topped with crispy shallots, a bacon and red wine vinaigrette and a poached egg which cascaded across the warm salad in the most satisfying way at first bite.
A generous platter of crispy calamari and rock shrimp ($10) could have been hotter -- the dish appeared to have languished on the kitchen counter before making its way to our table. It was served with a nice fennel flourish and a tasty Meyer lemon aioli, but it was light on the shrimp, a circumstance that pleased my calamari-loving husband no end -- me, not so much. It was the only misstep of the night.
Hopfinger's menu offers a nice array of New American fare -- giant grilled rib-eye steaks ($29), rotisserie Rocky Jr. chicken ($18) and Sonoma Korabuta pork loin ($22), and Angus burgers ($13) with red onion jam and all sorts of add-ons ($1.50), including Gruyere, pepperjack, avocado and such. The grilled shrimp and smoky white grits ($20) were incredibly tempting, as was the mahi mahi with mango-pineapple relish and coconut lime rice ($19).
But who can resist a slow-braised beef short rib "pot roast" ($24) served with mashed potatoes -- especially if you order a side of grilled lemon chile broccolini ($5)? Both were excellent choices. And my fettuccine ($17), made in-house and sauced with tomatoes, garlic, Meyer lemon and just enough chile flakes to keep things interesting, was terrific. It's one of the few non-salad vegetarian entrees on the menu; you can order it with grilled chicken for $3 more.
The seasonal dessert menu ($9) showcases a variety of fruity, caramelized, chocolaty goodness (hello, S'mores in a Skillet). If you exercise more restraint in ordering entrees than we did, you could possibly work your way through the whole delicious litany of sweets. But if you only order one thing, make it the Coffee and Doughnuts: two plump, sugared, piping hot beignets served with a thick coffee crème anglaise for dipping.
Ah, Cooperage, welcome to the neighborhood. You're exactly what we were waiting for.
WHERE: 32 Lafayette Circle, Lafayette
CONTACT: 925-298-5915; thecooperagelafayette.com
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. until 11 p.m. Fridays, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays, and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays
CUISINE: New American
VEGETARIAN: Only a few options, including fettuccine ($17) with tomatoes, Meyer lemon and basil
BEVERAGES: Craft cocktails, craft beer and wine by the bottle or glass
NOISE LEVEL: Medium-loud
KIDS: Children's menu includes mac and cheese, burgers and other kid-friendly fare.
PLUSES: Fresh seasonal fare, killer cocktails and great decor add up to a terrific east-side-of-the Caldecott find.
MINUSES: Make reservations early or you'll find yourself dining at 9 p.m. -- or later.
DATE OPENED: March
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