Lightfoot is an awesome restaurant for Leesburg. That's not condescending.

Leesburg isn't downtown Washington, and customers who frequent Lightfoot aren't, for the most part, the crowd that frequents the hippest, trendiest D.C. spots that are here today and flamed out in two years.

When Ingrid and Carrie Gustavson opened Lightfoot in March 1999, they were intent on founding a Loudoun institution, worth a visit yet worthy of repeat business from the locals. Their dreams were big and bold, and so is their restaurant.

The former People's National Bank, built in 1888, has the look and feel of a grand fin de sie{grv}cle Central European coffeehouse yet is undergirded by all of the techno whiz-bangs of the 21st century. Fortuny-style silk chandeliers grace the ornately carved 44-foot ceiling, while slender halogen pendants showcase the stunning collection of vintage French, Italian and German commercial posters.

The original fireplaces, including a baronial beauty half a house high, have been updated with gas inserts, and the bank vault fittings have been integrated into the de{acute}cor. The expansive banking floor features a semicircular bar oriented away from most of the tables and the spectacular columned entranceway. A marble staircase leads to a mezzanine piano bar.

The space is cozy and grand, with booths along one wall, a banquette that hugs the back wall of the bar and two dining alcoves, each with its own small banquette and several candlelit tables.

Chef Ingrid Gustavson's menu is familiar and intriguing. The foods are hearty, the flavors assertive, the portions large, and there is a fillip to each preparation. On a recent visit, white beans and Toulouse sausage gave the perfectly seared duck breast a Gallic flair. Polenta enriched with Asiago cheese accompanied the plump, moist sauteed chicken. Even the grilled New York strip was surrounded by a multinational medley of couscous, purple potatoes and broccoli rabe.

But that's jumping ahead, beyond a broad assortment of starters and soups and salads that could almost be a meal in themselves.

Daily specials -- a few on weekdays, many on weekends -- augment the lengthy menu. The lunch menu incorporates many of the smaller dinner offerings and adds sandwiches every day and brunch preparations on Sundays. The separate bar menu, available all afternoon, is just right for lingering over after a day of exploring Leesburg's many antique shops.

Even the bar nibbles are homemade and change daily -- straight-from-the-kitchen potato chips with a chive and sour cream dip, fresh fried tortilla chips and house-made salsa, crispy wontons.

My favorite from the starter menu is the savory wild mushroom and goat cheese strudel, portobello and shiitake mushrooms and smooth che{grv}vre wrapped in flaky phyllo and enriched by a cream sauce and more sauteed mushrooms. The crab cake is luscious, sweet jumbo lumps in a light binder, accented with small mounds of cre^me frai^che spiced lightly with mustard.

The salads aren't your mother's greens. Mesclun is topped with batons of smoky Gouda, the concentrated sweetness of sauteed pears serve as a counterpoint, and it's all drizzled with a white balsamic vinaigrette. Baby spinach leaves are tossed with nuggets of Smithfield ham, crumbled blue cheese, dried cherries and a sherry vinaigrette. In a recent special, crab croutons crowned smoked trout and buttery mixed greens in a balsamic vinaigrette.

The hands-down standouts are soups. Lightfoot's signature soup is a creamy tomato, rich with basil and tomato pulp and crested with pumpernickel croutons and Parmesan cheese. Every day brings a soup special, each just as noteworthy. On one recent day, it was pumpkin and green apple, smooth and tart at the same time.

Entrees include the basics: beef, pork, duck, chicken, fish, seafood, pasta and at least one vegetable offering. Only beef filet, nestled on a mound of garlic mashed potatoes and topped with crispy onions, and the pork chop, enrobed in a hoisin sauce, are featured daily.

"We have tried to change them, but our customers won't let us," said Carrie Gustavson Whitmer, the general manager.

Among a few disappointments were Oysters Rockefeller Lightfoot Style, wonderful when piping hot from the kitchen, but as they cooled, the topping toughened and obscured the delicate shellfish. The shrimp, calamari and scallop pasta was oversauced and cloyingly rich, and I would love to see a crusty baguette or sourdough included in the bread basket.

Save room, if you can, for dessert, and again note the specials, featuring seasonal ingredients. The world's smallest sundae (a single small scoop of ice cream topped with chocolate sauce, whipped cream and a cherry, served in a tiny glass) is always on the menu and always perfect, as are the Mocha Ya Ya flourless bittersweet chocolate torte, key lime torte and the flavored cre^me bru^le{acute}e of the day.

You might choose an elegantly homey special pastry. The warm apple bread pudding and a pumpkin brownie left me in a mood to come back and to bring friends.

Vintage French, Italian and German commercial posters line the high walls at Lightfoot restaurant in Leesburg, housed in the former People's National Bank, which was built in 1888. The seared shrimp crab cake appetizer, below, is one of many items on the extensive menu.