Last stop: Metro ends its run

Charlottesville has seen plenty of notable restaurants come and go, but few have the rich history of Metro, née Metropolitain, which will close its doors, according to co-owner Tim Burgess, on or before July 3.

Burgess says he and partner Vincent Derquenne– proprietors of two other downtown restaurants, Bizou and Bang!– needed to focus on the parts of their restaurant empire that were working. But the decision wasn't easy.

"This is our first one," says Burgess. "It hurts."

Metropolitain rewrote Charlottesville restaurant history in 1991 when it opened at the site of the recently failed Fat City Diner on the Downtown Mall. It quickly outgrew the space (now home of Bizou), so in July 1995, the duo took their show one block south to the site of a former hardware store.

Facing off across Water Street from then-power player Brasa (now Oxo), Metropolitain featured a glass-enclosed airport runway-style entry into a sleek, modern space designed by architect Jeff Bushman. In an early experiment, Bushman put the chefs– Derquenne and Burgess– on stage for the eatery's well-heeled patrons.

The dishes that emerged from that open-air kitchen were known as much for their towering three-dimensional presentation as for their unique flavors and near big-city prices. And the "drizzle" that's de rigeur in most nouvelle cuisine these days was then a pleasant aesthetic surprise for Charlottesville diners still accustomed to mashed potatoes and gravy.

In the late 1990s, nearby restaurants such as Brasa, South Street (the seafood establishment) and Memory & Company disappeared. Even the venerable C&O combined its formal upstairs and more casual downstairs into one menu. For at least five years, Metropolitain reigned over its neighborhood, and the New York Times and the Washington Post took notice.

But with the opening of a new wave of competitors, says Burgess, and the economic slump following 9/11, Metropolitain's linen-topped tables increasingly sat empty.

Hoping to revitalize their flagging flagship, Burgess and Derquenne renovated the space in 2002 (a move for which they came under fire for allegedly not giving some employees sufficient notice).

Several months later, the doors reopened to a landscape so changed as to be unrecognizable. Where Metropolitain had been sleek, dark, and futuristic, the new Metro was a wild blend of bright color and fabrics. Even more shocking: The open kitchen had been enclosed, and a curved bar had become the centerpiece of the restaurant.

"We really thought a makeover would boost it," says Burgess. "God knows we put plenty of money and effort into the redo."

Alas, says Burgess, "It just didn't fly."

For their restaurant-owning comrades, Metro's passing comes as a shock.

"I have no idea what could have happened there," says Dave Simpson, owner of the 27-year-old C&O Restaurant, after learning the news from a reporter on Monday, June 21. Though Simpson acknowledges the local restaurant scene has been getting "saturated," he says he lauds what Burgess and Derquenne were doing.

Fortunately the duo will still have plenty on their plates. Their Bizou, says Burgess, just had its best year ever. And business at Bang!, now in its second year, is up 20 percent.

As for the Metro space, Burgess says it won't sit completely unused.

"In the short term, we have parties scheduled," he says. "We don't know long term right now. We'll keep all our options open."

Keswick moves it upstairs

 Keswick Hall, that über-comfy estate on the east side of town, always had a few quirks. Not the least was the fact that the restaurant had limited views. Understandable, since it was located in the basement, or "ground level" as they like to say.

Now, more than a decade after Sir Bernard Ashley turned the former mansion into a pleasure palace of international renown, current owner Orient Express Hotels has raised the restaurant out of the ground and dubbed it Fossett's.

The place is named for the chef and slave of Thomas Jefferson whose cuisine led Daniel Webster to say in 1824, "Dinner is served half Virginian, half French style, in good taste and abundance."

On June 17 when the Hook dined at a pre-opening preview sumptuous views of rolling hills were in abundance and a white horse calmly grazed by a barn in a nearby meadow.

Architects for the restaurant– which carves out a piece of the resort's oversized deck– were Charlottesville's Train & Partners. The chef is John Brand, most recently the sous chef at Montagna restaurant at The Little Nell in Aspen.