Although no one could have known it at the time, September 10, 1988 was a big day for Charlottesville food. It was the first day of work in the area for two young cooks: Tim Burgess at Silver Thatch Inn and Vincent Derquenne at The Galarie in Crozet. Not long after, Burgess moved to The Galarie, and he and Derquenne became friends working together on the line.
Just over two years later, Burgess and Derquenne (then 25 and 23 respectively) were itching to open a restaurant together. With little money to bankroll the effort, the options were limited. A dive on the Downtown Mall called Fat City Diner was one of the few sites they could actually afford, in part because it was near the site of a recent murder. “Dead and scary,” is how Burgess described the Mall at that time.
They went for it and their restaurant, Metropolitain, opened in March 1991. The idea was simple: Make it all about the food. Decor and service would be secondary. Improbably, this concept would come to define local dining for the next several decades, as restaurants all over town ditched white table cloths and formal service to make food their primary selling point. Burgess and Derquenne did not mean to start a revolution. Rather, focusing on the food was all they could afford, so they played to their strength. Necessity is the mother of innovation.
To pay the bills, Derquenne and Burgess started with a simple menu of familiar items like a burger and grilled cheese. Over time, they slowly nudged their customers to eat more adventurously, and developed a style that drew on their different heritages. Burgess is from West Virginia, and grew up on Southern classics. Derquenne, a classically trained chef from France, had never heard of grits before meeting Burgess. Soon, they were on his menu in dishes like sautéed chanterelles over grits. The fusion of French and Southern food at restaurants all over the South has exploded in recent years, and has in many ways, become our town’s signature cuisine.
Metropolitain’s popularity prompted a move to larger digs on Water Street, where it became the most influential restaurant of its time before closing in 2002. The restaurant’s original site on the Downtown Mall is now home to Derquenne and Burgess’ always-packed American bistro Bizou, and they’ve transformed Metropoltain’s second home into a private event site called The Space. As if that wasn’t enough of a contribution to the scene, their restaurant Bang!, opened in 2002, continues to draw flocks for cocktails and small plates of Asian-influenced food.
But even without The Space, Bizou, or Bang!, Derquenne and Burgess would still belong on the Mount Rushmore of Charlottesville chefs for the lasting influence of Metropolitain. Because of it, local restaurants today are more food-focused and diners are more adventurous. And because of it, escargot, pâté, and quiche live happily beside catfish, grits, and country ham.
The New York Times once suggested that Metropolitain was reason enough to live in Charlottesville. Years after its closing, the trailblazing restaurant that Derquenne and Burgess created in 1991 leaves in its wake a legacy of other restaurants that themselves are reason to live here.
To read about Tim and Vincent’s pick for Charlottesville’s Rising Star, click here!
Their instant classic
“Our signature dish would be one of those we just created for a tasting dinner that may never be served (at least in such form) again at The Space. Lame, huh? So, really, the one dish that is always available at The Space, or Bizou, or Bang!, which we never get tired of preparing: fried chicken, paired with Champagne of course.”
Virginia beer/cider: Starr Hill Pale Ale
Pizza: Basil, mozzarella and tomato at Christian’s
Appetizer: Octopus at Orzo
Local ingredient: Pork loin from Polyface Farm
Burger: Blue Moon Diner’s bacon cheeseburger with a fried egg.
Virginia wine: Thibaut-Janisson sparkling wine
Taco: El Tepeyac
Appetizer: The Whiskey Jar’s very thin country ham
Bodo’s order: Pastrami on an everything bagel, with tomato, cucumber, lettuce, horseradish, and add bacon, eggs, and avocado.