There is an energy when you walk in the door at Lilah, even when there are no customers inside. Perhaps it’s the wood-fired oven blazing through the open window into the kitchen. Perhaps it’s Connie Heyer working to put together the dining room or Kevin Longmire and the staff hustling in the kitchen. Perhaps it’s the smiling image capturing the memory of the Heyers’ dog Lilah overlooking the bar. Whatever the source, it’s clear that you’ll be welcomed into Shepherdstown’s newest restaurant.
Longmire and Heyer have been working on the menu since July and the staff have been tasting since October. At 47 items, the launch menu is ambitious, but Longmire has many years of experience and loves to experiment. He comes to Lilah after eight years at the Final Cut in Charles Town and with a degree from the Culinary Institute of America. Connie’s husband Joe described Kevin as a master at flavor profiles, as he recalled the still-vivid memory of the steak accompanied with a bourbon-infused sauce that Kevin served him several weeks ago.
Kevin plans to build on his already-established relationships with local farmers to guide the evolution of the menu. It’s not just about selecting the ingredients but also how to make the dishes work consistently, which for Kevin means that he’ll be making a lot of the complex sauces and dressings himself. Adjusting for seasonal availability is a given, but Kevin also noted plans for pickling and preserving to provide off-season options.
In addition to collaborating with Kevin on the menu, particularly to make the culinary concepts work within the budget, Connie has spent the last few months focusing on the opening experience with an attention to detail that she attributes to her prior career as a project manager responsible for opening medical facilities around the country. She described it as “thousands of decisions, asking what’s the best salad, what’s the best fish option, what’s the best steak knife? It’s a single-minded focus on the experience we want to create.”
Listening to Connie and Kevin talk, it would be easy to guess that they have been working together for years, but the partnership came together just this summer — it was an instant click on the vision that they both shared for the restaurant. One fortunate aspect of the pandemic is that Kevin was able to bring along many of his colleagues at the Final Cut to staff the kitchen giving Lilah an experienced team from day one.
Connie and her husband Joe have been together for a while, long enough to raise four children. They had been thinking about a restaurant for many years, as avid — and critical — diners themselves. As Joe noted, “we both love to cook and enjoy eating. At a successful restaurant, it’s a combination of the good food and the good service that makes the experience. We realized often that we could do this better.” For Connie, she was tiring of the frequent cross-country travel of her prior job, a routine made even more fraught by the pandemic. It was the chance conversation with friends that alerted Connie to the availability of the space and it was the willingness of the building owners, Mary and Ken Lowe, to work with her to update the kitchen that sealed the deal and turned her into a full-time restaurateur.
Since opening in early December for take-out, Connie and Kevin have continued to tweak the menu and get down into the nitty gritty of making it work. Connie admits to asking herself “am I a bit nuts?” for opening now, but the reaction she’s seen from the community is energizing. It’s something that she hopes to feed back, to build a place that “feels good for everyone.” For now, she feels comfortable with the space and has designed the operation to succeed at 50 percent capacity to allow for life during the pandemic. In the springtime, she’ll have outdoor seating in front and along the side. Eventually she plans for music too. “If we’re here in a year with regular customers, I’ll feel really blessed.”By Staff Contributor