Chefs Lee Cooper & Jack Chen To Launch New Seafood Eatery in the Heart of Gastown

One of the best restaurant locations in the city has been picked up by chefs Lee Cooper and Jack Chen of Gastown’s critically acclaimed L’Abattoir. I’m talking about 1 Water Street, or what used to be the old Secret Location address on the northwest corner of Maple Tree Square. Their plan – already well underway – is to build a modern seafood restaurant. They’re calling it Coquille. Opening day is set for some point this winter.

The exterior of Coquille | Photo: Scout Magazine

In order to understand what’s coming it’s important to know what came before it. Until it closed in July 2016, Secret Location was for four years connected to the high fashion and lifestyle store of the same name next door, which is still in operation today selling – among a great many other hilarious things – $1,000 fedoras. Despite the best efforts of some very talented kitchen staff (including executive chef Jefferson Alvarez), Secret Location was almost always empty, having never found its target audience of young 1% types who like to eat where they shop. The most common crack about the place was really just a simple observation, one that is often uttered by industry people when they come across a new build sullied by a poorly considered concept: “It will make a great restaurant for someone else one day.”

Indeed. Secret Location’s failure opened the door for chef/restaurateur Lee Cooper – who is once again being backed by Nin Rai (one of his partners at L’Abattoir) – and chef Jack Chen, who was Cooper’s opening chef de cuisine at L’Abattoir. This is the first time Jack has had any skin in the game as an owner, and it’s cool to see him graduating thus. (I’ve watched him and Lee cook close-up through many a service, and they function together like a quiet, well-oiled machine.)

GM Liam Todd with Jack Chen, Nin Rai and Lee Cooper | Photo: Scout Magazine

Running the front of house will be Liam Todd, who you might recognise from the floor at L’Abattoir or Savio Volpe; or possibly from Nightingale, where he was a member of the opening crew.

(For the sake of clarity, it’s important to note that Nin and Lee’s other partner at L’Abattoir, Paul Grunberg, isn’t involved in Coquille, just as Nin and Lee aren’t involved in Paul’s other project, Savio Volpe. I guess it’s one big open marriage, if you will.)

From what I understand of the concept, Coquille will be a modern take on a classic seafood restaurant (full name: “Coquille Fine Seafood”). Jack and Lee want to play in the narrow space where familiarity and creativity intertwine, allowing them to look anew at old standards such as crab cakes, seafood towers and fish and chips. If I had to pin it this early, it sounds like a cross between L’Abattoir and Joe Fortes. What ever it is, I’m really looking forward to seeing a first draft of the menu!

The entrance to the restaurant is being moved from the front of the building to its side. Its interior will be split into two zones: the upper part being a bar and lounge area with an 8-9 seat wood (complete with shucking station and ice display), while the lower part will be a dining room anchored by a series of large, scallop shell-shaped booths (Coquille being French for “Shell”).

View from the original entrance of Secret Location | Photo: Scout Magazine

Not to further beat the dead horse that was Secret Location, but for some inexplicable reason they set the 4,100 sqft restaurant with just 50 seats. I’ve seen the floor plan of Coquille. It looks like they’re planning on almost doubling that number while offering an additional 30 seats on the patio. All of that is to say that if Secret Location felt like a vanity project

Coquille’s bar program will be simple with plenty of beer and wine, plus a list of uncomplicated, familiar cocktails drawn up by L’Abattoir’s original bar manager (and longtime Scout columnist), Shaun Layton. It will be open for lunch and dinner seven days a week running basically the same menu for both services. The designer behind L’Abattoir – David Hepworth – is in charge of the look, while the pros at Glasfurd & Walker is doing the branding/identity. Take a look inside…

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