No restaurant can be everything to everybody, but Local Provisions, a youthful addition to the dining scene in Loudoun County, comes closer to the bar than most places I’ve been to this year. In ways big and small, the family-run restaurant in the Cascades Marketplace in Sterling establishes itself as the ideal neighborhood roost.
After just one meal, I wanted to be a regular. This is a restaurant that (gasp!) answers its phone during service hours. Face-to-face encounters are memorable because whoever meets you at the door isn’t buried in a screen but ready to make sure you’re greeted like the guest you are. It’s a move initiated by Michael Stebner, who co-owns the place with his wife and chef, Ally, and makes a point to sign off on dishes as they leave the kitchen and chat up customers in the dining room, a light-filled place sprinkled with what Stebner calls “Easter eggs,” little treasures including a crocheted sign from his mom.
“The good life begins when we gather,” reads the framed message above the bar. To watch the restaurant light up at opening time, as the central small bar and two dining rooms fill, is akin to the frisson experienced when the curtain rises at the theater.
I haven’t even touched on the food yet, much of which is cooked on a charcoal grill. The menu marries trends (roasted cauliflower piccata) with comforts (chicken “cooked under a brick”) while slipping in some surprises. If you’ve never had lasagna soup, Local Provisions can remedy that.
The more I visited, the more I wanted to know the owners’ secret to such a smooth-running operation. Lots of restaurants led by big-time chefs don’t run so easily right out of the gate. Clearly, Local Provisions, launched in January, wasn’t the Stebners’ first rodeo.
Michael confirmed as much when I called him after my last visit and he shared his work résumé, starting in 2003 with a restaurant called Region in San Diego, where he and his wife shared chef duties, and moving on to some impressive corporate brands: True Food Kitchen, where Michael was the chef at the original in Phoenix; Sweetgreen, the salad business launched in D.C. and relocated to Los Angeles, for which he served as director of culinary innovation; and most recently, the homegrown Cava, where he acted as a consultant.
The Stebners originally thought about opening a fast-casual eatery in Sterling; the pandemic gave them time and reason to rethink the plan. Locals let them know they wanted a place “to sit down and be comfortable,” says Michael. He and Ally thought such a place would better “feed our souls as chefs.”
No surprise, the restaurant was named to reflect a reliance on ingredients from the area — some purchased (rockfish from the Chesapeake), others made on-site (pasta) — and the hope of becoming a gathering place for neighbors.
The appetizers alone make that easy. The reason you see so many flashes of orange and red on tables is because roasted slices of butternut squash and a shower of pomegranate seeds atop toasted bread slathered with tangy goat cheese is a mighty fine way to kick off (or even be) dinner. A thick drift of labneh “loaded” with cucumber slices, crunchy fried shallots and house-baked Italian country bread is just as pleasing. Our old friend cauliflower is treated like a cut of fish or meat: roasted over charcoal and splashed with lemon, garlic and capers. “How are the first few bites?” asks a young server. We respond with thumbs up and admiration for the multiple clever vegetarian compositions. Still, you should fit in fritto misto — lightly battered shrimp, calamari and zucchini slices — and grilled octopus splayed over cannellini beans tossed with salsa verde, an appetizer set off with shaved fennel. Like several other selections, the fried seafood gets a fist bump from what Michael calls “Lo-Pro” seasoning, a blend of nutritional yeast, granulated garlic and dried oregano that lends umami, a delicious complexity, to dishes.
As for the lasagna soup, it’s pretty much the strapping bowlful you imagine it to be and underscores the owners’ mind-set. “We don’t want to be that serious,” says Michael. Pasta layered in a crock with vegetable-sweetened ground beef, chicken stock and a cheese-topped crouton is thick enough to warrant a fork. Also the kind of thing a kid might concoct on a dare. Also, curiously tasty. The arrival of warmer weather tugs me in the direction of the salads, including kale tossed with quinoa, walnuts, goat cheese and apple. You may find yourself asking for uneaten first courses to be wrapped to go. The kitchen portions them as if two were sharing.
Lamb burgers are poised to join beef tartare and soft-serve ice cream as Dishes That Are Everywhere Now. Local Provisions’ sandwich is my current pick of the bunch. The goodness starts with ground meat from the esteemed Elysian Fields and is spurred along by pickled peppers, a shake of Lo-Pro and squares of sesame focaccia. (Like a lot of us, Michael says bread baking became a passion project at home earlier in the pandemic; customers profit from his experimentation at the restaurant.)
Pasta Bolognese is as easy to find on menus these days as service fees; this version, warm with Calabrian chiles, demonstrates the wide, Taylor Swift appeal of the sauce. Lighter in all ways is a turban of linguine slicked with pesto and mixed with spinach, crushed walnuts and toasted breadcrumbs.
Michael calls the chicken “cooked under a brick” his favorite entree. A fact check reveals that the weight is actually a cast-iron skillet but confirms that the dish, set off with a zingy olive relish and splayed over sliced potatoes that absorb the juices, is the pick of the crop.
Get to know Jason McCollam. He’s the talent behind the bar and as good an ambassador for Local Provisions as the Stebners. “He gets mentioned in more Google reviews than me,” says Michael, without a trace of envy. “People think he’s the owner, the best compliment.” McCollam also shakes and stirs the kind of drinks that prompt a second round. “Dance Mom’s,” for instance, nicely balances tequila and grapefruit juice. The drinks taste like the class acts in Washington, at friendlier prices ($12 on average).
The spare, clean-lined look of the restaurant has more to do with the owners’ budget than any minimalist leanings, says Michael, who with Ally hung the brick veneer in one of the two dining rooms, saving themselves $12,000. (Daughter Flynn gets credit for whitewashing the brick.) The couple took an easier approach in the second room, wallpapered with an artsy series of sardine cans. Reservations can be made for parties of six to 10. Otherwise, it’s first come, first served. That way, says Michael, “you can make the decision right before you come.”
Diners are sometimes reminded that mortals are in the kitchen. I polished off a thick piece of rockfish, but not the fork-defying cannellini beans supporting the local catch, and my pork chop should have been plucked from the grill sooner to avoid overcooking. The chop arrived with what sounded like poetry on the menu (“wood roasted Brussels, apricot agro dolce, with walnuts & mustard seeds”) but tasted like a bunch of random things forced to make nice on the plate. The apricots were missing the tart-sweetness one expects of a proper Italian agrodolce.
I can forgive a few slips given the abundant scores here, including ample parking and a kids menu that embraces grilled steak and fries. A stack of booster seats near the restrooms reconfirms Local Provisions’ family-friendly status, although I can vouch for the restaurant’s suitability for date night and, based on observation, girls’ night out and single dad’s after-work pit stop.
Young as it is, the restaurant shares the warmhearted traits I associate with such convivial neighborhood destinations as Buck’s Fishing & Camping in the District and Ruthie’s All-Day in Arlington. The biggest complaint I can muster is distance. Why does something so near and dear to me have to be an hour from home?
46286 Cranston St., Sterling. 571-299-0789. localprovisionsva.com. Open for takeout, delivery, indoor and outdoor dining 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. Prices: Dinner appetizers $9 to $14, main courses $15 to $34. Sound check: 77 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: Slight ramp leads to entrance; ADA-compliant restrooms. Pandemic protocols: Staff are not required to be masked or vaccinated.