Metro's end: Closure wrapped up a surprising year
The end of an era: Metro
When Metro closed in July, the news flew over the Atlantic, past France, and hit me smack-dab in the heart of Italy. Could the closure of Charlottesville's most revered and taste-setting restaurants signal anything other than the end of an era? (Many were to ask themselves the same question the next month, when the West Main classic, the Blue Moon Diner, bid farewell.)
The restaurant boom of the '90s saw the birth of the trend-setter– as Metropolitain (1991)– and its move from the Mall to Water Street (1995). The post-9/11 transformation of the interior and menu was a passionate attempt on the part of owners Tim Burgess and Vincent Derquenne to keep the grande dame fresh and filled with diners.
But the talented pair decided to let her go in order to focus on their other two enterprises, Bizou and Bang! For months, the building, which Derquenne and Burgess own, has sat dark. Well, Dish is happy to say that the space will be coming back to life very soon... and that a Metropolitain-trained chef is responsible.
Sean Lawford, whom many know from Bizou (he ran its high profile kitchen for four years), was hanging out on a Santa Barbara beach when the Metro news flash hit him. The young chef immediately interrupted his sabbatical and came home to propose a takeover strategy.
"I didn't want any one else to have this space," he tells Dish, hammer in hand. "It's such a cool space, and I basically learned to cook here."
Lawford, who was apparently not the only bidder, succeeded in persuading Burgess and Derquenne that he was indeed the best candidate for the job. "There was no favoritism whatsoever," Lawford says.
I can't reveal many details yet, but you may have noticed the changing colors of the façade– pale blue last time I checked. There are many more painterly experiments going on inside the already redefined space. Mike Clark of The Goodpaint Company is helping Lawford create a "clean-distressed" look for what promises to be a unique, affordable-casual eatery in the "bistro-esque" genre.
Lawford's aiming for a mid-February opening– but we'll let you know if the doors open sooner, or later.
Local legend revived: Fellini's #9 th Life
Just a few blocks from Metro, sometimes-naughty local legend Fellini's came back to life this year– actually, this month– after a dramatic decade-long closure. Famous for much more than its Italian food, the restaurant and bar scene created by eventually disbarred lawyer Francis Guthrie "Chief" Gordon was purchased in 1994 by one of its greatest fans: mathematician-turned-historic preservationist Ben May.
Over the subsequent 10 years, May lovingly restored every piece of furniture, every fixture, every mirror– and succeeded in making a dilapidated building gleam.
Unlike at Metro, it was a gutsy outsider who accepted the challenge of breathing new life into the famed Fellini's structure. Jaclynn Dunkle, a restaurant manager from Nashville, was able to achieve the impossible. She satisfied May's desire to keep the Fellini's legacy alive while also being true to her own vision of a new restaurant : Fellini's No. 9.
I don't know what sort of cosmic phenomenon caused this year's gelato explosion, but like lots of other folks, I'm thankful for it. Not one, but two new Italian-style gelato cafés brightened the sweet streets of Charlottesville in 2004.
After an extensive renovation of the former Opportunity Shop, Splendora's hit the Downtown Mall on July 13. With its eye-catching (i.e. not brick!) mango-colored façade, its playful interior, and its colorful selection of authentic gelato- made in-house by owners Fax and Andrea Ayres– Splendora's certainly upped the iced-treat ante to gave Chap's a bit of competition.
A miraculous summer week later– on July 19, to be precise– Milano Gelato-Espresso opened its glass doors in the new Italian wing of the Main Street Market.
Recreating the authentic Italian bar experience in a chic little space, Milano, owned by newcomers Mark and Victoria Cave, fed the sophisticated tastes of market-goers with its combination of simple, authentic Italian coffees (no triple mocha skinnies here) and a choice selection of gelato flavors.
Just when it seemed like Italy was going to rule the frozen dessert world, the Bazelak family from New Jersey opened BazCones on October 23. This all-American sandwich and ice-cream shop on Fifth Street just off the Downtown Mall countered all of the little cups of nocciola and stracciatella with its comparatively larger Hershey's ice-cream concoctions, many loaded with goodies like crushed candy bars, nuts, and whipped cream. Who says downtown is just for nouvelle hipsters?
A new breed of franchise
In a once-sleepy corner of the Barracks Road Shopping Center, two new venues– one a nostalgic, mom-and-pop burger joint and the other a super-sized boutique bakery– proved how inaccurate the pejorative implication of the "franchise" label can be in 2004. A far cry from McDonald's, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, which took the place of Chesapeake Bagel Bakery, is a DC-based, family-run, and locally owned operation.
A no-frills burger joint that doesn't cut any corners on quality (the meat is fresh, the potatoes fried in healthy peanut oil), Five Guys has had lines out the door ever since it opened in September– and it doesn't seem like the December debut of Panera is curtailing the queue.
A local example of this national bakery chain, Panera made it clear that it is possible to get good and affordable European bread– and a heck of a lot more– at a relatively large-scale operation. A fireplace and paintings are added bonuses. Makes you realize why places like Our Daily Bread Co., which closed last year, feared Panera's competition.
Krispy Kreme's May closure made it seem like this was a bad year for carbs, but Panera suggests exactly the opposite.
2004 has witnessed the closure of restaurants as distinct in genre as Nelson County's romantic Mark Addy Inn to the Seminole Square outpost of the defunct Chi Chi's Mexican chain. (The 100-restaurant company suffered a massive outbreak of Hepatitis A in Pennsylvania last October, just as it was about to declare bankruptcy.)
We saw a flourish of small-town growth such as Crozet's new Cocina del Sol and Kokopelli's Café, and Nellysford's MC2 and Ambrosia's.
As we go to press, the future of the town's iconic sushi bar, Tokyo Rose, hangs in the balance. There's said to be a buyer, but employees tell us their services are no longer required.
In addition to openings and closures, this was a year of interesting mergers and expansions: Pizza Bella purchased Rococo's, Tony Jorge turned Higher Grounds into Café Cubano "featuring Higher Grounds Coffees," Sticks #2 sprouted in Pantops (Applebee's, too) and The Virginian spawned a larger clone– West Main: A Virginian Restaurant.
While Mas topped the 2003 food news list, 2004 was a surprisingly uneventful year for Belmont. From the looks of it, 2005 will bring at least a new coffee shop to the 'hood- if not another restaurant, too. But I'll save all of my other delicious surprises for the New Year.
Buffalo Wing Factory and Pub
Café Cubano (new avatar of Higher Grounds)
Cocina del Sol
Five Guys Burgers and Fries
Tropical Smoothie Café
West Main: A Virginian Restaurant
Blue Moon Diner
Chesapeake Bagel Bakery
Laurel's Early Light Café
Mark Addy Inn (restaurant)
Sean Lawford plans to open a new restaurant in Metro's old space in 2005.