Written by Diane Helentjaris | Photos by Michael Butcher
Fate or chance, however you characterize the twists and turns of life, unpredictable but pivotal happenings barge in. One day, in 2004, Neil Metzger dropped in at a mall’s food court from his IT job at the Pentagon. Friendly and easy to chat with, he started up a conversation with two sisters, Jamie and Maggie, dining nearby. Their lives took on a new trajectory that day, one unlike anything he’d dreamed of growing up in Indiana or the sisters could have predicted in their Thai childhoods.
A few years later, Neil and Jamie married and had a daughter. They traveled back and forth between their homelands, eventually deciding that settling in the States made the most sense.
Around Christmas in 2016, the time seemed right for Jamie, her sister Maggie, and their chef-sister Banyen to realize their dream of owning a restaurant. Neil had worked as a bartender in the past and would help with the business side of things.
Finding the right location was important. A Google search revealed that, unlike much of northern Virginia, Middleburg had no Thai restaurant — or any Asian restaurant.
A town with no Thai food? Now that was an itch worth scratching. Few cuisines are as popular as Thailand’s. Several years ago, CNN Travel polled 35,000 people worldwide to create a list of the “World’s 50 Best Foods.” Thailand had more dishes than any other country with seven making the list. Surveys consistently place Thai food in the top 10 of favorite cuisines.
Jamie had never been to Middleburg, but “loved it” the minute she saw the town. Opening their restaurant Best Thai Kitchen in Middleburg, according to Neil, was a joy. “We ended up at East Federal Street and it was an amazing experience,” Neil says. “The Town was super easy to work with. They had a ribbon cutting and packed the place… Everyone couldn’t have been nicer.”
The rambling building with the welcoming front porch at 4 East Federal Street, built in 1953, started out as a private residence. As the years rolled on, the house was transformed into a commercial property. It has served as an art gallery, a Mexican restaurant, and noted local restaurateur and caterer Tutti Perrone’s place. “For 25 years it was the Back Street Café. Tutti owned it. Everyone local had nothing but good things to say about it,” Metzger says. “It had a good mojo.” Metzger goes on to say he hopes that this “mojo” has rubbed off on his family’s restaurant.
“The experience we’ve had, the friends we’ve made, the support we’ve got … including the support from the town during COVID … we’ve not had a single bad experience.”
The restaurant’s success rests, according to Metzger, on a cadre of regular customers. Many have had the opportunity to enjoy Thai food on trips to Thailand, so the restaurant’s ability to offer authentic food is critical.
The family opened a second Middleburg restaurant, Red Bar Sushi, a year later, which they eventually merged with Best Thai Kitchen at the Federal Street site. The combined name Red Bar Sushi & Best Thai Kitchen reflects this, as does the menu. In addition to Thai dishes, an expansive variety of sushi is offered along with other Japanese foods and even a smattering of Korean dishes.
Neil and Jamie Metzger and Jamie’s sister Maggie Penprachum own the restaurant. Sister Banyen is “semi-retired.” The trio own a second restaurant in Leesburg, also called Red Bar Sushi & Best Thai Kitchen.
The food continues to be artisan quality with careful attention to the details. “We make almost all our sauces. We use good, thick coconut milk… The women work five to six hours, five to six days a week, to make food from scratch. It’s incredibly time consuming but shows in the taste of the food. … Everything’s a little bit cleaner in taste, a little bit fresher,” Metzger says.
To source the specific vegetables, herbs, seafood, and spices needed for their menu, the restaurant buys from a selection of niche outlets, rather than from the one-size-fits-all, large suppliers. The two sides of the menu, sushi and more broadly Asian, are equally popular with customers. In warm weather, the sushi side of the menu edges up a bit. The Thai side, with its belly-warming soups, rises in popularity with the cooler seasons.
Metzger says, “It’s a family business with family recipes, and a lot of time and love goes into preparing the food … pretty much from A to Z. Lot of love goes into it. We feel blessed and send a lot of gratitude back to everybody, to everyone.” ML
Red Bar Sushi & Best Thai Kitchen
4 East Federal Street
Middleburg, Virginia 20117
Posted on: August 7, 2023