As bulldozers and chain restaurants continue their relentless assault on the outskirts of town, it's nice to know that at least one longtime Leesburg institution is holding fast--and packing them in--in the heart of our historic district. Indeed, to set your thumb squarely on Leesburg's pulse, just stop by the Leesburg Restaurant for lunch any weekday, grab a seat at the counter and take it all in.
The Leesburg Restaurant has been in the same storefront on the west side of King Street between Market and Loudoun for 134 years, a few of those as a soda fountain. Not to go trite on you, but walking inside is like stepping into that classic Norman Rockwell painting of the policeman and the runaway. Really. There are cakes under glass, shelves of those mini cereal boxes and an old-fashioned shake maker--you know, the kind with those long blades and that big stainless cup? All right, I haven't spotted a truant kid there, and this is a darker, smokier version, but Leesburg's finest certainly stop in for counter service, and it's a meeting place for everyone who's anyone in this town.
In fact, for at least 30 years, the Leesburg Restaurant has hosted what owner Jim Mastria calls the Power Table, an eight-top in the middle of the restaurant that fills up daily with the community's elders. You'll find there the gray-haired powers that be in downtown Leesburg--such as Stanley Caulkins, of Caulkins Jewelers; Howard Armfield, of insurance brokerage Armfield Harrison & Thomas; and ubiquitous former mayor, gadfly and author Frank Raflo, whose books are peddled at the cash register.
Local notables do occasionally find a seat elsewhere: I spotted the tweedy Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Russell Baker dining alone at the counter a couple of months ago. That's not to say that lesser mortals aren't more than welcome: the comfy booths are usually jammed at lunchtime with workers and visitors from the courthouse and nearby government buildings, King Street merchants and professionals, perhaps a local historic homeowner or two and the occasional tourist.
The restaurant's motto is "Serving a little history every day," and there is a physical sense of history here. It's not so much about authenticity or restoration and preservation so much as it is about time having passed and left behind the detritus of various eras. There's a spectacular (if neglected) art deco wood and steel bar back, a sagging turn-of-the-century tin ceiling and ugly wagon-wheel chandeliers that just have to be circa 1970s. Still, the flotsam-jetsam decor--and even the food--are almost beside the point, swallowed up as they are in the LR experience. And that experience? Well, it's difficult to capture in words the magnetic appeal, the human warmth this place throws off. It has something to do with the low growl of conversation, the friendly service, the pleasant aroma of coffee and cooking that envelops you the moment you step through the door.
But it's also about friends and family and tradition, about people who have dined and chewed the fat together for decades, waitresses who answer to first names and a sense of small-town connectedness that the average American can only dream of these days--one that has nothing to do with cell phones and beepers, faxes and e-mail. To be able to step in and grab a little slice of community for yourself, even for an hour, is well worth the (cheap) price of admission.
And what of the food? Not bad at all, and sometimes very good. The Leesburg Restaurant basically serves diner fare: the usual breakfast stuff, soups and salads, hamburgers, sandwiches and some dinner entrees after 5 p.m., such as pork chops ($8.95) or a New York strip steak ($10.95).
Miss Alma's been cooking up breakfast there for two decades, and I recently tried two eggs over easy with bacon and four slices of French toast. She knows her stuff. The yolks were intact, the whites thoroughly cooked, the bacon--Kunstler's--crispy but not dry, and the thick Texas-style French toast hit the spot. The sandwiches are decent as long as you're not thinking gourmet or even deli: My grilled ham and cheese ($3.95) featured processed American; a hot pastrami on rye ($4.25) was delicious though the thinnish sandwich left me wanting more.
That said, the fat, battered onion rings are excellent, and look for the bargain daily soup and sandwich special (about $4.25) as well as the Thursday meatloaf and occasional baked flounder--both of which often sell out. One of my favorites is the thick, luscious peanut soup, a bowl of which ($2.60) you can almost make a meal of.
And although I was skeptical when I saw it on the menu, the Leesburg Restaurant does a very credible job with its crab cake sandwich ($6.50). The cake is crispish and slightly browned, the meat itself obviously fresh, succulent and served on a sesame roll with green leaf lettuce and a slice of real red tomato (even this late in the season). The seasoned mayo on the side is overkill for such a star.
Okay, it is still a diner, and the details aren't all sublime: The hot chocolate is Swiss Miss, the home fries can be mushy and that red carpet is pretty darned ratty. Service can be fitful: On a recent Saturday morning I was served quickly at the counter, but it took me nearly 10 minutes to get a check; a less patient customer came in, sat down and left when she remained unserved. (Hint: If you're in a hurry, ask for the check when your food is served.)
Also, be forewarned, this is truly a businessperson's eatery: On weekdays, there's often a line for a table by noon and a line at the register at 1 p.m. But the Leesburg Restaurant is a rare treat, a reminder of how once upon a time--before we became a nation of subdivisions and parking lots and fast food--people actually walked down the main street from their offices or homes and caught up with a friend or two over a BLT.
William W. Horne's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Address: 9 S. King St., Leesburg. 703-777-3292.
Hours: 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday.
Prices: Breakfast, $2-$10; lunch starters and salads, $1.25-$5.95; sandwiches, $2.75-$5.25; platters, $6.25-$6.95; dinner entrees (after 5 p.m.), $8.25-$10.95. Daily specials available.
Miscellaneous: Eat in or carryout, counter service, kids' menu, beer and wine. Nonsmoking in back room. Two-hour free parking available in municipal garage behind restaurant. All major credit cards accepted.