By Jan Mercker
When longtime Loudoun and Fauquier-based chef Shane O’Connor sold the beloved Blackthorne Inn in 2016, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do next. O’Connor took a whirlwind Bourdain-esque food tour that covered four continents and found his new passion project: a European-inspired restaurant in downtown Purcellville.
“The inspiration of food and seeing what people were doing was absolutely phenomenal. … I came back with 100 percent respect,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor and business partners Eric Major and John Wolff have spent the past two years building Bia Kitchen, which opened this week in Purcellville’s hopping 21st Street shopping and dining district.
O’Connor grew up in Ireland, the son of a lighthouse keeper, with a childhood spent moving from place to place along the Irish coast. His family moved to Virginia in the 1980s, following an aunt and uncle who were working in the equestrian industry at the famed Llangollen Farm near Upperville.
At 16, O’Connor knew he wanted to work in the culinary world and hit the ground running in the Middleburg restaurant scene.
“It was always food for me,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor got his start as a sous chef at Windsor House in downtown Middleburg, working under his mentor, the French-trained chef Robert Mayer. O’Connor also met his wife Elizabeth, now a teacher with Loudoun County Public Schools, at Windsor House.
After a brief stint in Colorado in the mid-90s, the couple returned to the Middleburg area when O’Connor was recruited to launch the restaurant at the Middleburg Tennis Club. O’Connor helped build the lunch and dinner menus at the exclusive club where he was the chef from 1995 to 2005. During his decade at the club, O’Connor started a catering business on the side and decided it was time to launch his own restaurant. He bought the Blackthorne Inn near Upperville and created a small bed and breakfast-style hotel with a highly rated 50-seat restaurant. But O’Connor admits he didn’t love the hotel side of the business. After a decade of running the Blackthorne, he was ready for a change and sold the inn in 2016. The hunt country celebrity chef was ready for a new challenge.
“I looked at Liz and said, ‘I want to get inspired again,’” O’Connor said.
O’Connor and a friend embarked on a European tour that started as an expedition to Svalbard, Norway, one of the world’s northernmost communities and turned into an epic culinary adventure.
“Six weeks turned into three and a half months with no agenda going from country to country,” O’Connor said. “I wanted to see what makes a great restaurant.”
After eating his way through 27 countries and covering 11,000 miles and four continents, O’Connor returned to Loudoun inspired and ready for a new project. Working with his like-minded local friends, Major and Wolff, O’Connor embarked on a mission to create a European-inspired restaurant with a focus on local ingredients in downtown Purcellville.
The partners bought the historic building in November 2019 and kicked off the renovation in February 2020 after four months of design and architectural work. With pandemic-related delays, a planned eight-month rebuild stretched into two years. The new owners redesigned and gutted the building from plumbing to wiring but kept the charming exposed brick walls
As he did with Blackthorne, O’Connor had a vision and oversaw the design details from custom-designed furniture to glowing faux-finishing work from local artist Patricia Taylor Holz to create a warm European flair.
O’Connor has put together an international team, with staff from around the world and co-executive chef Nick Forlano, who ran a successful restaurant in The Plains. O’Connor has his sister Sharon O’Connor, general manager at the Blackthorne Inn, back at his side running Bia Kitchen. No wonder western Loudoun–and O’Connor’s longtime hunt country following– have been buzzing about the opening for months.
“The expectations have really grown over the last two years with the building–and the anticipation,” O’Connor said.
Bia Kitchen is located at 108 N. 21st Street in Purcellville. For more information, go to biakitchen.co.
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