From the outside, it looks like an Applebee's, and that's what it used to be. But there's much better cooking in the neighborhood since the Blue Ridge Grill opened in Leesburg in November.

This is the kind of place that Applebee's and myriad other chain restaurants aspire to be: a convivial, convenient watering-hole-cum-restaurant with friendly waiters and waitresses, a sympathetic bartender, an interesting menu prepared well, copious servings and reasonable prices.

The biggest problem with the Blue Ridge Grill is figuring out how to get there. The address is listed on Edwards Ferry Road, just across Route 15 and a block north of the big outlet shopping mall. But to get there, you have to turn off Edwards Ferry as if you were going into the Sheetz service station, then make your way through the parking lots to the restaurant.

Once inside, it's hard not to notice that the configuration is much the same -- a horseshoe-shaped bar flanked by booths and tables. But the decor is understated. A muted green colors all the walls, and old windows, painted bright white, hang from the ceiling as dividers.

The Blue Ridge theme is evident in poster-size photos of whitewater rafting and equestrian events. The overall effect is soothing, except for some too loud, too hip music that sometimes hampers conversation.

Although this is hardly a downtown lounge, the list of specialized drinks, such as an apple martini and a signature margarita made with blue curacao, is long, and more than a dozen decent wines are available by the glass.

The menu resembles that of almost any respectable local tavern -- burgers, crab cakes, salads, steaks and a couple of pasta dishes. But the preparations are impeccable, this from a restaurant that really doesn't have a classically trained chef but relies on people who have cooked at various restaurants.

Michael Norton, who owns the Blue Ridge Grill with friend John Carroccio, explained that a chef with whom he had worked in Argentina helped to develop the menu. Carroccio mostly manages the kitchen, and Norton takes care of the front of the house, which includes on its staff people who worked with Carroccio and Norton at other restaurants in the region.

Carroccio, who grew up in Bethesda, and Norton, a former military brat who attended James Madison University with a lot of Carroccio's high school friends, have known each other for nearly 20 years, starting as servers at local Houston's restaurants. For much of that time, they discussed opening their own place.

They sealed the deal more than a year ago while glacier trekking in southern Argentina after Carroccio had left the Great American Restaurant Co., which owns Mike's American Grill, Sweetwater Taverns and Carlyle Grand, among others. They searched beach communities in North Carolina and Delaware and then from Annapolis to Frederick before settling on Leesburg and finding the old Applebee's location a day after the restaurant closed.

The menu begins with such standards as chili and chips and smoked salmon. But the smoked salmon is literally a big chunk of salmon that has been smoked and is served with toast points and the grill's refreshing house dressing. Cajun shrimp are napped with a Creole-spicy remoulade sauce and accompanied by batons of garlic toasted baguettes.

The bisque is creamy and spiked with diced lobster, and the chicken tortilla soup is showered with a tangle of tortilla strips, swirled with sour cream and tasty to the last spoonful.

Salads at the Blue Ridge Grill are truly entree size, crisp greens heaped in deep pasta bowls. The Caesar has the proper light dressing, not the heavy goop common to many eateries. The Pacific Rim chicken salad has the pleasant tang of a honey lime vinaigrette married well with a Thai peanut sauce.

At dinner, a smaller portion of the house, Caesar or mixed greens salads can be added to any entree for a small charge.

The eight-ounce filet mignon was perfectly buttery and rare in the center, the crab cakes are just lump meat bound lightly with a sauce (no filler) and the Ahi tuna steak was gently seared on the outside, leaving the interior almost raw.

My only quibble is the restaurant's dependence on a few side dishes (mashed, baked or french-fried potatoes -- and the latter are excellent -- creamed spinach, saddle beans or a vegetable of the day) to accompany most main courses. Those may be fine for steaks and crab cakes, but none seemed appropriate for the tuna.

The only exceptions are the daily specials, which are created as a whole and seem more attractive and better thought out. For example, the mahi-mahi special one evening was presented over couscous, then the plate was decorated with a cilantro sauce into which had been drawn small, pale fish. The textures and tastes were complementary and effective, more so than mashed potatoes with rare tuna.

There are no such problems with the three homemade desserts -- a luscious brownie topped with ice cream, a decadent, white chocolate cheesecake and an earthly apple cobbler, also accompanied by ice cream.

Top any of those with a good cup of coffee, but don't except anything fancy. Espresso and cappuccino, the menu advises, are "available at Starbucks!"

If you have ideas for food-related feature articles, contact Nancy Lewis at lewisn@washpost.com.

Co-owners John Carroccio, left, and Michael Norton discussed opening a restaurant for years before settling on a location in Leesburg.The extensive menu features rib-eye steak.Cajun shrimp are steeped in a Creole-spicy remoulade sauce and accompanied by garlic toasted baguettes.