Only 25 miles west of Washington, D.C., Loudoun County is a surprise—filled with vineyards and farms, this rural area has some of the best food in Virginia.
Completing his series on Loudoun, our intrepid culinary traveler David Latt highlights his picks for the restaurants, wineries and attractions in this historic county that really make a difference.
Leaving behind turnpikes and highways,you easily enter the slower paced world of small towns like Middleburg, Leesburg, Lovettsville, and Purcellville.
This cluster has one of the highest concentrations of award-winning restaurants, bakeries and vineyards in Virginia.
Driving down Route 50 takes you past small restaurants and markets run by passionate small-business owners.
For picnicking, Market Salamander and Home Farm Store on Washington Street carry high-quality prepared foods, made-to-order sandwiches, whole cooked chickens, smoked turkey wings, charcuterie, cheese and desserts.
The historic Red Fox Inn, built in the middle of the 17th century, often used to serve a young George Washington.
The Inn has tavern fare soups, salads, sandwiches and grilled fish, poultry, and meat.
On the edge of town, the Goodstone Inn & Estate restaurant is in a building that originally housed the stables. What had been a private estate, with barns, staff cottages and a main house has been transformed into an elegant bed-and-breakfast inn with 18 rooms and 3.5 miles of hiking trails on 265 acres of a working ranch.
With a lovely view of the woods, the restaurant serves French-American classics like steak frites, French dip sandwiches, moules frites, onion soup, crepes, tarts, foie gras, Roquefort salad, duck a l’orange, filet mignon, rack of lamb and Virginia soft shell crabs.
If you are lucky enough to stay at the Inn, chef William Walden’s crunchy caramel peanut brittle is placed on each guest’s pillow. A bite of the brittle is a good way to finish a day of exploring. Actually, a bite of the brittle is dangerous because it starts a whole new attempt at exploring—trying to find MORE of it.
Learn more about local travel: Civil War Travel: Loudoun County, Virginia
Mom’s Apple Pie is the perfect spot to refuel with a slice of pie and cup of coffee.
With almost two dozen varieties of pies to choose from, you can be more adventurous than just apple—there’s peach, pecan, coconut custard, strawberry-rhubarb, wild blueberry, and an interesting choice: sour cherry, just to name a few.
An important (and refreshing) distinction: The buttery crust is flaky. The fillings are made with brown sugar, butter, fresh fruit and nuts.
For anyone not in the mood for pie, Mom (Avis Renshaw) also bakes breads and cookies.
Eight miles past Middleburg on Route 50, Upperville is home to the Hunter’s Head Tavern.
Owned by Sandy Lerner, a co-founder of Cisco Systems and an animal-rights advocate, Hunter’s Head Tavern prepares chicken, turkey, pork and beef raised on Lerner’s Ayrshire Farm. Lerner is determined to raise livestock sustainably, organically and humanely. And it works.
This is tasty food indeed. The ribeye steak, almost always the most flavorful at any restaurant, was particularly good here. The chicken was mild and tasty, the pork chop, sweet and moist (this is a challenge at many restaurants).
Besides good food, the tavern is also worth a visit because of Lerner’s off-beat sense of humor. Lerner likes to tell the story of when a local equestrian society asked to ride across her property for their fox hunt. She said no. Now her restaurant has the head of a hunter, mounted on a plaque. The period cartoons on the wall also feature a world ruled by animals.
Find more great eats in our Culinary Travel section
The meat and poultry served in the tavern are also sold at Lerner’s Home Farm Store in Middleburg. Her home-cured bacon, sausages, veal chops, ribeye steaks, and rib roasts are worth bringing home.
Magnolias at the Mill has the casual feel of a neighborhood hangout. The horseshoe bar takes up half the dining room. Moderately priced salads, soups, sandwiches, burgers, crab cakes, pizzas, and grilled dishes fill the menu.
Prepared with a keen attention to detail, chef Mark Marrocco’s dishes hit familiar notes in the best way. A delicate crust protects the crab cake, with large flakes of sweet meat inside. The chef then layers on crisp bacon, creme fraiche and salsa.
At the northern tip of Loudoun County, the Restaurant at Patowmack Farm is hard to find. It’s a long and winding Lovettsville Road that finally brings you to a greenhouse, which turns out to be the restaurant, on a bluff overlooking the valley below. At dusk, the sunset gives the land a magical feel.
The appetizers have a sense of whimsy.
One appetizer resembles potted plants, except the “dirt” is edible cocoa and the plants are delicate baby radishes, asparagus and beets.
Owner Beverly Billand has a good menu, and an even better story to tell.
Twenty-five years ago, she escaped Capitol Hill to become a vegetable farmer. Her kids convinced her to go organic. Farming didn’t make enough money so she sold prepared foods. When people wanted to see the farm, she gave nature tours. People got hungry, so she served meals in a tent on the terrace. Slowly but surely the idea of a restaurant evolved.
Most people don’t know this (and I certainly didn’t until I began to research it), but Virginia is the fifth largest wine producer in the United States. In Loudoun County alone, there are 29 wineries, all of them with tasting rooms. A free Touring Guide with detailed descriptions of each winery is available on line. Before visiting a winery, check the times of operation. Some are open by appointment only.
The Touring Guide helpfully organizes the wineries into five, day-trip “clusters,” with lists of “Destination Restaurants” and “Local Favorites” so visitors will know where to eat as they pursue their day of wine tasting.
All the Loudoun wineries specialize in small lot production, averaging several thousand cases a year. By and large, the wineries sell the majority of their wines in their tasting rooms.
Boxwood Winery is one of the most highly acclaimed vineyards and is often served in high-end Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. restaurants. Executive Vice President Rachel Martin sees Boxwood as a labor of love for her family. With young vines, Martin knows her award wining wines will only get better in time. Boxwood tours and tasting are by appointment only.
On a clear day, you can see Washington, D.C., in the distance at Bluemont Vineyard. During the summer, local bands play while families and friends hang out on the lawn having picnic lunches. Bluemont’s wines are nicknamed—”The Goat,” “The Donkey,” “The Cow,” “The Ram,” “The Strawberry” and “The Blackberry”—so you don’t have to stumble over the varietals with names like viognier, vidal blanc, petit manseng or rkatsiteli.
One caution: The young Loudoun vines really need more time to mature before they reach their full potential. For the time being, the Loudoun County wines are great for an afternoon picnic or light dinner. Visit the vineyards and buy a few bottles in enjoy later.
After a few years, they’ll be a great souvenir of your trip to Loudoun county and you really can be first on your block to boast of being ahead of the curve … when it mattered.
By David Latt for PeterGreenberg.com. Visit David on the Web at MenWhoLiketoCook.com.