The spectacular view of the Cooper River remains the same at the new Cooper House restaurant, while the place has been given a complete makeover and new menu.
More than a year after upgrades began to spruce up the once-popular Lobster Trap, the restaurant is only weeks away from opening.
Besides its new name, the restaurant, closed since 2013, will have a new lease when it officially opens June 5. The building is owned by Camden County.
There will be no TVs or stools at the bar, which will offer locally brewed beer and wines from South Jersey. Instead, there are two 10-foot-long community tables close to each other.
"You are forced to meet people," said restaurateur Kevin Meeker, also the owner of Keg & Kitchen in Haddon Township. "It's all about community."
During a tour Thursday afternoon, crews worked outside in a light rain planting begonias in a flower bed near the entrance. Inside, workers were staining woodwork and putting finishing touches on the carefully designed interior.
"We're really excited. We really wanted to complete something that was different," said Dominic J. Vesper Jr., deputy county administrator.
Meeker and business partner Michael DeBenedictis, a lawyer, are behind the nearly $3 million county-funded project to transform the restaurant.
It is part of a $23 million project to change the landscape of Cooper River Park, add amenities around the 374-acre attraction, and draw more outdoor enthusiasts to the waterway.
The dredging operation began in November and has taken longer than expected. The delay disrupted practice for hundreds of rowers. The Cooper River is home to a number of national and collegiate rowing championships.
A date has not been set for the final dredging phase near Cuthbert Boulevard, said Freeholder Director Jeffrey L. Nash. About 85,000 cubic yards of sediment have been removed from the river.
Nash said the county is working with the state to determine when dredging will resume and whether the river will be closed during the operation.
The $10 million dredging project is intended to deepen the Cooper to at least five feet. Muck and debris in the river made it difficult for rowers and boaters to navigate.
Officials hope to restore the 2,000-member course as a premier rowing river. The sixth and southernmost lane of the course has for years been so shallow that oars could catch bottom at low water.
Nash said the river was reopened April 8 to yacht clubs and hundreds of rowers, whose summer and fall seasons were disrupted. "People seem very happy to be back on the river," he said.
The "Vision Plan" for the park is expected to be completed by next year. It includes the eatery, new public restrooms, bike lanes, picnic areas, walkways, docks, and renovations to Jack Curtis Stadium.
The 6,572-square-foot Cooper House is on the river's Pennsauken bank and has a 120-patron indoor capacity. There will be 40 beers on tap at a small bar inside as well as a large bar on a patio. The patio will eventually include a casual area where joggers can relax in hammocks and enjoy light fare.
The building dates to the creation of the park in the mid-1930s. The outside seating made the Lobster Trap a popular attraction in warm months.
The county had awarded a contract to Meeker and chef Tony Clark to operate the restaurant. Clark bowed out a few months ago. The restaurant will employ 30 to 50 people.
Under the lease agreement, the operators will pay the county about $5,500 a month and about 5 percent of sales, said county spokesman Dan Keashen. A "soft opening" is planned for May 12.
This is the 11th restaurant for Meeker, previous owner of the Philadelphia Fish Co. Meeker brought in executive chef Tyler Turner, who previously was at El Vez in Philadelphia, to manage the kitchen.
"This is the most excited I've been," Meeker said. "I think this is going to be a different venue that will hopefully bring people from the city here."
Turner was given carte blanche to develop an American menu that includes entrées such as charred octopus and "Grandpa's bratwurst." The restaurant initially will be open for dinner and brunch, with lunch added later.
The menu is much different from the seafood-theme cuisine at the Lobster Trap. Most of the offerings will be prepared on the premises.
On Thursday, Turner served the staff lunch - coleslaw, pickles, and brisket prepared in a smoker out back. A newly hired pastry chef was putting the finishing touches on the dessert offerings - apple pie cheesecake and berry cobbler.
"As a chef, you want everything perfect," said Turner. "I'm ready for it to open."