Atelier de Cuisine: Burgess and Derquenne define The Space

The recent decision by the X Lounge to curtail its operating schedule to instigate more private parties heightens the mystique around another downtown restaurant space, one that although it closed in 2004 still evokes intrigue as the place that the New York Times once called a "deciding factor" for anyone considering a move to Charlottesville, a place that has become a kind of chef's atelier for the two men who transformed the downtown food scene back in 1991.

Chefs Tim Burgess and Vincent Derquenne opened Métropolitain in the old Fat City Diner 21 years ago. Today, the second home of "Metro," on Water Street, is well into its second year as The Space Downtown, Charlottesville's only restaurant reserved exclusively for private parties.

Following the post-9/11 economic downturn and the downtown restaurant boom they helped launch, chef/owners Burgess and Derquenne made the painful decision to close "Metro" in 2004, which had moved to architect-designed digs on Water Street in 1995. They had attempted to resuscitate the business with a 2002 renovation, but that didn't work; and, fortunately, they had two other successful restaurants, Bizou (in the original Metro space) and Bang! on nearby Second Street.

Back in 2004, a former chef for Burgess and Derquenne, Sean Lawford, opened Cassis in the old Metro space and enjoyed a popular six-year run before closing in April 2010.

As Burgess points out, running a full-service restaurant isn't easy, especially in tough economic times. What's more, their pioneering work on the Downtown Mall– after the C&O restaurant gave Charlottesville national stature– launched literally dozens of restaurants wanting a piece of the downtown pie. Today, according to the Hook's count, there are 69 eateries and cafes on the Downtown Mall.

After Cassis folded, Burgess says that he and Derquenne– who owned the building together– weren't sure what to do with the space. The thought of taking on a third restaurant was daunting. Besides, Burgess was about to get married for the second time, and he had a wedding and a new life to think about.

One thing, however, was a no-brainer: they had a nice space downtown to throw a wedding party to celebrate his nuptials to artist Sharon Shapiro. The wedding celebration was so much fun that Burgess says it inspired the creation of The Space.

While the business has been successful so far, Burgess says it's the freedom of not having to run a full-service restaurant that they've enjoyed. He also says The Space has become a kind of studio for creating menus and new dishes, and even serves as a back-up kitchen when Bizou or Bang! get slammed. Producing events at The Space also gives Burgess and Derquenne a chance to work together.

"We hadn't physically worked in the kitchen together for so long," says Burgess, recalling the days when then-rare open kitchen at Metro allowed customers to see the two at work.

"We both have that spontaneous personality," says Burgess, noting that they'll often finalize an evening's menu at 5pm. "We go at it and have fun. There's lots of improv when we do events at The Space."

There's also a lot more creative freedom. As Derquenne points out, plates are a chef's canvas, and for private events at The Space they get to create, arrange, and present their cuisine on larger platters in all kinds of special arrangements.

"This is where we come to create things for our other restaurants, too," says Derquenne. "It really is like a studio where we can work on new things."

Indeed, like his artist wife, Burgess says he now has a sort of private studio of his own.

"Restaurants are chaotic," says Burgess. "This place gives us some peace."