When Leesburg native John-Gustin Birkitt opened the doors to his first restaurant in Middleburg more than 10 years ago, success would mean breaking a curse.
“There had been six restaurants [in the space] in 20 years and no one could make it,” he recalls. “We ran the French Hound there for 10 years and broke the curse as everyone said.”
Birkitt finds himself with a similar challenge now in Lansdowne. Last year, Birkitt and his wife Marny surprised many in the Middleburg community and beyond when they announced they would be moving their restaurant to Lansdowne Town Center. The space they now occupy has had several restaurant tenants in the mixed-use center’s first decade. The Dock at Lansdowne, Velocity Five and Blu Vino Rifugio have all come and gone, earning the 150-seat space a similar reputation to The French Hound’s Middleburg predecessor.
“Now I’m ready to break curse number two,” Birkitt says with a smile.
The story of The French Hound begins with Birkitt’s own culinary journey. After studying French in France in his youth, Birkitt studied at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. His career path then brought him from the Napa Valley area of California, where he scored his first executive sous chef job, back to France to serve as a private chef, to Charlottesville to Chattanooga, TN, before finally settling back in Virginia. In the mid-2000s, the Birkitts considered buying and running The Ashby Inn in Paris, which was for sale at the time. But an eventual business partner turned them onto the small town.
Birkitt thought an upscale bistro would fit Middleburg nicely, and the formerly cursed space that came available allowed for a quick transition rather than a full build-out. They opened to great fanfare. Marny Birkitt recalls the excitement on opening night, when a planned seated dinner instead resembled more of a cocktail party and reunion, with everyone so excited to celebrate and reconnect with old friends that no one sat down for their reservations, instead mixing and mingling throughout the restaurant.
“Everyone was happy and excited and warm and that’s exactly what we wanted—a space that is warm and inviting and jolly and friendly,” she said.
The Birkitts are hoping their new Lansdowne space has the same warm feel. They certainly have considerably more space to work with. Their total seating has tripled, the outdoor seating has doubled, the bar is three times the size of its Middleburg predecessor, and the kitchen is also larger, John-Gustin Birkitt said. And, most importantly for the owners, there is a larger, more concentrated population to draw from, which is a big reason they made the move from Middleburg to Lansdowne.
“We always kept waiting for Middleburg to really blossom into a little more tourism, but Rt. 50 is only so big and there’s only going to be so many people coming out there,” John-Gustin Birkitt said.
Before ultimately deciding to close the Middleburg restaurant to move operations to Lansdowne, they toyed with the idea of keeping the Middleburg location open and just adding a second location, he said. But the needs of their family, with a young daughter at home, plus being closer to a larger population, made the logical choice to move altogether.
For those who never made it to The French Hound in Middleburg, the Lansdowne space has much of the same feel and offerings.
“This is a nice upscale bistro,” Birkitt explains. “Bistro cuisine is a little more of the humble French cuisine. It’s not your uptight fine dining laden with cream sauces. It is a much more relaxed atmosphere.”
Customers can leave the suit and ties at home in the casual atmosphere. While diners can sit at the bar and enjoy a cold brew and appetizers, or delve into one of Birkitt’s sumptuous bowls of French onion soup or pizza for a quick lunch or dinner, fine dining options do exist. Filet mignon, lobster risotto and French staple escargot can all be found on the menu. Thanks to Marny Birkitt’s extensive wine knowledge, the couple is putting the finishing touches on a reserve wine list that will cater to the most discerning palates. They have relied on a local expert to set up the beer list, which includes local, domestic and foreign brews, with eight beers on tap.
The restaurant opened at the beginning of the month and will be building up to its regular hours as some final work is completed on the space. The Birkitts say they believe they have found their new home and hope the Lansdowne community embraces The French Hound as horse country once did.
“I am ready to find a home and stay here,” John-Gustin Birkitt said. “Not just become the next restaurant in here.”
For more information on The French Hound Brasserie, go to: frenchhoundbrasserie.com.