Custom made: At The Space, diners can create their own restaurant

Custom made: At The Space, diners can create their own restaurant

Imagine your dream restaurant. What would it be like?

The menu would be designed to your tastes, with food prepared by world class chefs, using only the best ingredients. There would never be any crowds, and you’d have the whole place to yourself. You could arrive when you chose, and stay as long as you like. You’d even have your favorite music playing throughout the evening.

Believe it or not, this exists in Charlottesville. One of the best kept secrets in town is the custom-designed restaurant concept available at The Space, the Downtown event site that opened in 2010.

In 1991, two young Charlottesville cooks had an idea for a restaurant: “What if it’s all about the food?” That concept, the primacy of food over service and décor, would come largely to define the next two decades of Charlottesville dining, culminating in the recent wave of food trucks, where customers really do get nothing but food. But, the two cooks, Tim Burgess and Vincent Derquenne, did not set out to be pioneers. Attention to food was all they could afford.

Both in their mid-20s, Burgess and Derquenne cobbled together just barely enough funds for a down payment on a restaurant. Metropolitain, as they called it, was a bare-bones diner on the then-barren Downtown Mall in the space now occupied by Bizou. Service, Burgess admitted, was an after-thought.

To start, a basic menu of familiar items allowed Burgess and Derquenne to pay the bills while slowly introducing guests to more adventurous offerings. Before long, they were wowing diners with dishes like chanterelles over grits and rabbit quesadillas. Metropolitain’s popularity soon outgrew its space, prompting a move to larger and more chic digs on Water Street. There, the restaurant became what many consider the most influential Charlottesville restaurant of its time, constantly challenging the palates of its legions of fans.

Metropolitain eventually ran its course, and Derquenne and Burgess closed its doors in 2003 to focus on their other two restaurants, Bizou and Bang!. In 2010, they turned the onetime Metropolitain location into The Space for catering private parties and receptions.

While those events provide much of The Space’s business, less well-known is that it is available during the week to small groups who agree to spend at least $1,000 on food and beverage. If that sounds like a lot, with just five couples it would be $100 per person, which is not much more than what you might pay on food and wine for a blow-out meal at a restaurant of similar caliber. For a smaller per-person fee, bring a larger group.

In exchange, you can have a restaurant to yourself and food prepared by two of the top chefs in Charlottesville, expertly paired with wines by Derquenne. Having enjoyed several intimate dinners at The Space, I am aware of nothing else like it in town. A recent dinner there confirmed that Burgess, 50, and Derquenne, 48, are still at the top of their game.

When we arrived, a board of housemade charcuterie and flutes of champagne awaited at the bar. After mingling over rabbit pate and The Space’s own Virginia ham, we sat down for dinner, serenaded by our own playlist of music.

While The Space can tailor a menu to your preferences, my favorite way to eat there happens to be the chefs’ favorite way to cook: Let them decide. Burgess and Derquenne enjoy allowing their creativity to run wild with whatever fresh ingredients happen to be available. “We’re two older chefs still looking to let it rip every now and then,” said Burgess. And, let it rip they did.

A medley of ripe heirloom tomatoes was topped with a fried squash blossom, basil, olive oil, and a gastronomical trick called balsamic “pearls”—small spheres of jellied vinegar that burst in the mouth like caviar. Seared diver scallops joined chanterelle mushrooms, sweet potato coulis, and pecan dust.

The show-stopper came in the least expected place: the salad course. Chevre was encased in paper thin local yellow beets acting as “ravioli” skins, and then topped with endive, apple, micro-arugula, and more beets. It was a reminder that complex flavors can be achieved without turning on the stove. Next came sliced Rock Barn pork flank atop kale sautéed with lardon and red pepper. And finally, there was a lick-your-plate peach tarte tatin with housemade buttermilk sorbet.

Of dinners like this, Burgess recently wrote on his blog: “The next time you have a group of friends and you want to go on a culinary adventure, drop me line and we’ll be happy to cook for you.” Will do.