Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Karen Olson of Metropolitan.
The rumors must be true, if they're now being reported as fact by Ted Scheffler of City Weekly, Mary Malouf, the food queen of Salt Lake Magazine, and Glen Warchol of the Salt Lake Tribune.  The Metropolitan, winner of umpteen restaurant awards, will close this weekend.

Friday will be the last time you can come in for a final meal at 173 W. Broadway.  Saturday night will be a private party. According to the news reports, owner Karen Olson and her family are selling  the restaurant.

When I became the Deseret News food editor in 2000, The Metropolitan already had a stellar reputation for cutting-edge cuisine.  The restaurant remained on my radar quite a bit.  There were prestigious trips to cook at the James Beard House in New York City. For a chef, being invited to cook at the James Beard House is akin to a musician being asked to perform at Carnegie Hall.  

Karen also spearheaded the city's annual Downtown Dine O'Round in fall 2003, now an annual event.  For about two weeks, downtown Salt Lake restaurants offer lower-priced dinner specials. After she heard about the enthusiasm and solidarity that "restaurant week" brought to big cities such as New York and Washington, D.C., she made some phone calls and got things rolling here in Salt Lake City.

Olson also participated in a "Four Chefs, Four Seasons" event with Log Haven, Snake Creek Grill, and Bambara restaurants. The restaurants took turns hosting a special dinner where each of the four chefs did one course of the menu.

Because Karen was so community-minded, it was surprising in 2007 when her restaurant was targeted by animal-rights activists for serving foie gras (the fatty liver of ducks or geese).  For several months, activists stood outside the restaurant with signs and banners, heckled patrons, and threw red paint on the building. The final straw was near midnight on Christmas Eve, when the large front picture window was shattered. That's when Olson capitulated and took the controversial French delicacy was off the menu.

"I was afraid someone would get hurt," she told me at the time. "At some point, when my building is getting destroyed, I have to make the call."

But Karen and her restaurant seemed to bounce back from that experience. Her leadership abilities were tapped by the Distinguished Restaurants of North America, where she now serves as the national chair for 2010-2012. DiRoNA is non-profit group that has an anonymous inspection and recognition program for member restaurants. 

In his City Weekly column, Ted Scheffler muses that Metropolitan got stuck early on with the "big splurge" badge that it couldn't shake. The image stuck even after the restaurant offered lunch specials, bar "bites,' and a bistro menu.  Also, the chefs and culinary teams seemed to come and go every couple of years...  although that's not unusual for today's restaurant business. 
My thought is that when The Metropolitan opened in 1995, it was one of a few outstanding local restaurants. Maybe in part due to its success, today there are many great restaurants in Utah who also offer innovative menus of fresh, quality ingredients, with an emphasis on local, organic and artisan. The competition is  greater, and the economy has been hard on the restaurant business.

I can relate; I know how it feels to have a career sidelined by circumstances beyond my control.
It will be interesting to hear what Olson decides to do post-restaurant. She never planned to be in the food industry in the first place; she had just finished a master's degree in clinical psychology at Pepperdine University when she responded to an SOS call from her brother, Cristophe, in 1996.  He was ill and couldn't continue running the place on his own.  
Cristophe Olson, with the backing of his family, had opened his vision of  a "dream" restaurant. An art collector schooled in French cuisine, Cristophe Olson wanted a building with "industrial Soho ambience." The minimalist interior used natural ingredients indigenous to Utah.  Table linens were Italian Frette, recognized the world over for their superior quality. Silverware was WMF German-made. The dinnerware was selected at Limoges from the Bernardaud company. All beverages were served in Riedel and Schott-Zweisel crystal. The beautiful showpiece cookware that hangs over the hearth in the exhibition kitchen was stainless steel-lined heavy gauge copper from France.
In 1996, Karen left Southern California and a promising psychology career to help her brother keep the restaurant going. The psychology degree probably stood her well, when you're dealing with customers and cooking.  

And it's been a good run for 16 years.  After all, many restaurants don't last 16 months. 

I'll be by to bid farewell before Friday.  

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