Richmond’s halcyon Westhampton neighborhood is about as charming as you can get without traveling through your screen to Stars Hollow.
Between the high-end boutiques hawking $50 newborn onesies and the quaint cafes serving espresso and wine, savory bites and sweets, it’s like a Parisian slice of heaven in the middle of Central Virginia.
While there are a handful of solid eateries in the area—offering everything from Chinese to wagyu beef burgers—there is no sexy “night out” spot, per se, in this neck of the West End.
That’s where Cocodrilo comes in.
The space at 5811 Grove Ave. (formerly Caturra on Grove, which officially shuttered in September 2020) has been completely overhauled by a powerhouse team of operators, including Brandon MacConnell, Tara Schleinkofer, Brad Slemaker and Rob Long.
Richmond restaurant vets MacConnell, Schleinkofer and Slemaker have been friends for nearly a decade, bonding during their time at Lemaire. “I know how they work and the level of service we provide,” says Slemaker. “We’ve got the A team.”
Former investment banker Long is the owner of Scott’s Addition boutique bowling alley, River City Roll, where Slemaker currently serves as executive chef. MacConnell was most recently [Chef de Cuisine] at Shagbark, and Schleinkofer comes to Cocodrilo after nine years working front of house at Lemaire.
“It was time,” Schleinkofer says of her move to the new, Latin American-inspired spot. “I’m hoping to bring my knowledge of service over here—without the white tablecloths. This will be different, I’m excited for a more casual speed.”
The renovation of the sprawling Grove avenue restaurant has been anything but casual, though. “The whole vibe came from Rob’s idea to bring something new to the space,” says MacConnell.
That vibe is the antithesis of the former dark, heavy wood aesthetic of Caturra. The space is bright, bold, and modern with a terracotta palette accented by bright blue, imported tiles; an open kitchen featuring a high-end open-flame grill; a soft seating area curved around a fireplace adjacent to a sleek garage door that will be open “on nice days;” several stunning, gray-scale murals from renowned Richmond artist Nils; and a brand new patio out back, set to open this spring.
The newly reno-ed space is a beauty, but arguably the greatest asset of Cocodrilo -at least from a chef’s perspective- is tucked away, out of sight.
“If you come down these steps, this leads to the prep kitchen,” MacConnell says. What used to be “damp storage” is now home to every piece of bright and shiny equipment any chef could ever need—they even have speakers installed in the ceiling so the team can jam out while they slice, dice and store.
“It’s pretty cool, people won’t even know the stuff that is getting done under their feet when they’re eating,” says MacConnell.
MacConnell, who worked with chef/owner Walter Bundy at Lemaire before helping him open Southern leaning Shagbark in 2016, is bringing his deeply sown love of local food to Cocodrilo.
The chef says they’ll be sourcing pork from Autumn Olive Farm, seasonal produce and salad greens from Manakintowne Farms, mushrooms from Sharondale Farms and rockfish from the Chesapeake. They’ll also have pastries from Flour Garden on the menu and coffee from Blanchard’s.
While the menu isn’t finalized—“we’ve changed the menu, like, 50 times” laughs MacConnell— expect to see items like a Maine lobster enchilada with marjoram and creamy garlic broth and oak grilled lamb ribs with a guajillo and cane sugar barbecue glaze.
Slemaker and MacConnell both urge there is no set theme here, they’re simply using Latin American-inspired flavors and ingredients in ways that excite them. “It’s a lot more fun to be creative,” says MacConnell. “It opens it up for both of us to put out things we haven’t done before.”
Schleinkofer confirms there will definitely be a house margarita—made with salted agave(!)—on tap, plus a charred citrus paloma made with local Navy Hill Soda. “We’re playing with infusing wood grilled elements into the cocktail program,” says MacConnell.
Cooking over wood has been a learning curve for both chefs, says Slemaker. But there’s a certain thrill to working over open flame, burning up local white ash, that the chef says has drawn in some top talent.
“We built the kitchen the way we wanted to, which is great. We set up the kitchen to work for us,” says Slemaker. “Honestly, to work on that grill it should be any chef’s dream, it draws the better cooks.”
Cocodrilo is slated to open this February if all goes according to plan. They’re still getting staffed up, which, even with a top-tier kitchen setup, is tricky during an ongoing pandemic. Slemaker says that while they’re planning to eventually offer breakfast, lunch and brunch, “once we get our feet under us,” they’re starting with dinner only Tuesdays from 5-10 p.m.
Keep an eye out for opening day updates on Cocodrilo’s Instagram, and plan to make your dinner reservation via Resy when the time comes.