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Eat, drink and be Loudoun: The sport of local dining satisfies

The scene at Eddie Merlot’s, an upscale steakhouse. Times-Mirror/Dale Peskin
It’s 5 p.m. on Friday and the dining tables in the elegant bar of Eddie Merlot’s are already filled. A diverse crowd – some dressed in business suits, others in weekend jeans – files in after work. They order $18 appetizers with their $12 cocktails. Under the stained-glass panels that frame the room, two familiar faces sit at the end of the bar sipping martinis, admiring the fulfillment of a concept decades in the making.

One is Bill May, the Miller & Smith executive who has spent more than a decade developing fallow fields at the intersection of Route 7 and Loudoun County Parkway into One Loudoun -- an urban oasis for living and playing marketed as Loudoun County’s “new downtown.” The other is Julie Dilon, the development's marketer who captured the imagination of new, younger and affluent Loudoun residents flocking to the county with the promise of a lifestyle that is engaging, convenient and oh-so-now.

It’s a lifestyle that’s also pricey. Miller & Smith’s “Next Level” townhomes at One Loudoun start at $850,000 – that’s without upgrades. A “platinum cut” steak at Eddie Merlot’s can cost $100 (a filet costs about $40). Toppings and sides cost extra.

“Just look at this place,” says May, One Loudoun’s indefatigable developer “A white-napkin restaurant in Ashburn. And there are restaurants for every taste, too.”

The scene at neighboring restaurants in One Loudoun confirm May’s prideful proclamation. Even on a blustery spring evening, patrons spill onto the patio and cluster around the modern fire pit at Matchbox, the industrial-chic pizza and salad tavern. By 7 p.m. there’s already a party going on at Sense of Thai, where Jeremy Ross is pouring smoking cocktails. The after-work crowd is also packing the bar at Uncle Julio’s for guacamole and margaritas. Across the plaza at Bar Louie, the crowd grows more raucous into the night.

Eight miles down Route 7, a different kind of party is emerging in the vicinity of King and Market streets in Leesburg’s historic downtown district. It’s First Friday, the monthly food and music fest in the traditional center for Loudoun County lifestyle and culture. The scene is lively, but more serene at eclectic, locally-owned restaurants like Tuscarora Mill, Wine Kitchen, Lightfoot, Chimole, Palio Ristorante and King Street Oyster Bar.

On this Friday at Palio, all the tables are booked and the room is filled with a classy ambience and the jazzy sounds from a piano trio. Owner Mike O’Connor holds court in two landmark buildings where he touts the unique appeal of Leesburg’s restaurant row and promotes the development of a cultural and entertainment district that celebrates local ownership, locally-sourced menus, local artists and a uniquely local appeal.

“Look, the folks who own and operate restaurants in downtown Leesburg live and die over what happens here,” says O’Connor, who also owns the historic Leesburg Diner on King Street. “ That’s part of Leesburg’s appeal.”

A restaurant has operated out of the Leesburg Diner space since 1865.

O’Connor believes there’s room for many types of customers in a growing county with expanding consumption.

Loudoun is the fastest-growing county in Virginia and the 16th fastest-growing community in the country, adding an estimated 73,000 since the 2010 census. Forecasts suggest that the county may grow by as many as 60,000 new residents when the Silver Line connects Loudoun to the Capital District corridor in 2020.

Most will be hungry, thirsty and ready to enjoy themselves. Developers and brands -- local, regional, national and international -- are planning to satisfy Loudoun’s appetite for the good life. The demographics are appealing: affluent households with a median income of about $120,000 and professionals under the age of 35 with, presumably, plenty of disposal income.

County planners have implemented an economic strategy designed to reach this emerging audience with new mini-cities around Silver Line stations, urban live-work-eat-and-play centers similar to the One Loudoun model.

There’s one critical barrier: cost. Lifestyle costs in Loudoun County are high and rising, due in part to the expense of development costs, leasing costs and housing prices, as well as low supply for current demand.

A few hours out in Loudoun County can easily cost several hundred dollars, a substantial share of a family’s entertainment budget for a month.

Consider a night out for the Easterlys. Jim Easterly is a network engineer at Verizon’s government operations center in Ashburn, and his wife Ashleigh manages the raising, activities and education of three children under the age of eight. Time away from Jim’s job and Ashleigh’s managing of the household is a rare event, one where cost has to be contained to live within a budget that most would consider more than adequate.

On the Friday night when the restaurants and taverns at One Loudoun and First Friday were packed, the Easterlys met friends for small plates at Mokomandy, a cozy and popular Cajun-Korean bistro in Potomac Falls, then walked a few doors down in Great Falls Plaza to Velocity5, where they danced to a friend’s band and had a few drinks.

Total cost for the night out: about $200, not including babysitting costs.

Michelle Cordero, a Sterling mother of two, said her family eats out about once a week, and they “definitely plan for it and make room in the budget.”

“As a self proclaimed foodie, I love it,” said Cordero, speaking specifically about the abundance of new restaurants sprouting up. “I love all the options and I love having new places to try on a date night with my husband or the smaller ones as a family. I also love that we don't have to travel to D.C. for a little bit of foodie culture.”

Cordero listed Sweet Water Tavern and Cava Grill in Sterling as a couple family favorites.

“I would say good food and unpretentious are our favorite type of restaurants right now,” she said.

Restaurant entrepreneur and operator Kris Diemar understands the market well, including the price points for a well-earned night out for couples, singles or groups.

“It’s about the experience,” says Diemar, who wears a suit as general manager of Eddie Merlot’s then dons jeans as an owner of Smokehouse Live, a barbeque and music venue at the Village at Leesburg. “The idea is to fulfill customers’ expectations, for them to say ‘that was worth it.'”

With its glass-enclosed wine room, stained-glass panels and sculpted wood columns, Eddie Merlot’s feels like an elegant restaurant in New York City -- another world from the 1,200 Subway franchises that launched its owner in the food business. Diemar says some customers are surprised when he pours a complimentary glass of Dom Perignon. The quality of service, drink and food all fulfil the expectation of a steakhouse that “doesn’t feel like a steakhouse,” he says.

Since opening eight weeks ago, a table at Eddie Merlot’s has been difficult to come by. Now Diemar hopes to attract corporate business to two dedicated dining-meeting rooms in the 400-seat restaurant.

Back in historic Leesburg, the experience is more intimate, more familiar, more local.

The goal, Mike O’Connor says, is turning “First Friday into every Friday.”

“Customers appreciate where they are,” he says. “This is Leesburg, as it should be.”

Leesburg Diner Mike O'Connor at his King Street restaurant. Times-Mirror File Photo

-Staff Writer Chantalle Edmunds contributed to this report.

Editor's note: The Easterlys name has been changed to protect their privacy.


Taco Bell in Leesburg provides good quality food at a reasonable price.

Sense of Thai is very good.

Very funny, BHarp34! Family Meal was terrible and I can’t believe the sign is still up so long after the restaurant changed over to Italian fare. I guess that shows the confidence Chef Voltaggio has in the new place, he hardly bothered to put signage up- I wouldn’t either, it won’t be there long. Every time I walk by the place, it is empty.

Brian Voltaggio’s Family Meal is incredible, and will be around for decades for Loudoun to enjoy.

Eddie Merlot food is okay, but not superior. DC Prime is much better. Regardless, both places will bankrupt the average family.

Eddie Merlots food is excellent and the service fabulous.  No need to drive to Reston or Tysons.  Keep the dollars in Loudoun.

Where is the baseball stadium Miler and Smith?

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