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Loudoun tourism officials are looking to attract ‘culinary travelers’

The Wine Kitchen in Leesburg is one of Loudoun County's Destination Restaurants. (ROBB SCHARETG/SCHARETGPICTURES.COM/Courtesy Visit Loudoun)

For years, Loudoun County has steadily worked to build its reputation as the Washington region’s wine country, luring thousands of wine aficionados to the scores of vineyards dotting the county’s western hillsides.

And where there is wine, foodies will follow.

Visit Loudoun, the county’s tourism association, announced this month that it is seeking nominations from the public for the county’s Destination Restaurant program, launched in 2007 to recognize businesses that meet the World Food Travel Association’s definition: “A restaurant that is so interesting, different or special that people travel just to eat there.”

“We have hundreds of restaurants in this county, and this program helps us to make recommendations to visitors, and it also encourages the restaurants to step up,” said Stacey Sheetz, Visit Loudoun’s marketing communications manager.

This is the first year in which Visit Loudoun has sought nominations. When the program began, only a handful of restaurants made the list, Sheetz said.

“But now the dining scene is growing so quickly, and we’re seeing a lot of local restaurateurs come in, so we knew we had to revamp the program and increase its frequency,” she said.

The program will issue an open call for nominations every year. Every two years, a committee of Visit Loudoun staff members and county residents will do a thorough overview of the list, and all restaurants will be reevaluated, Sheetz said.

The scoring involves six criteria:

→The restaurant must offer a unique experience, through its food, service, interior design, setting or, ideally, all these factors.

→There must be authenticity to the experience.

→The final product must consistently meet “exemplary” standards.

→Locally grown products must be featured.

→The establishment must be a local favorite and a place of “character” in the community.

→The menu should include Loudoun beer, wine and spirits.

As national culinary tastes have shifted toward local produce and farm-to-table cuisine, Loudoun, with more than 1,400 farms and 40 wineries, has been well positioned to benefit from the trend.

“The restaurants in our area have been leaders in the farm-to-table area,” Sheetz said. “The components were already here, and there’s such a great sense of collaboration [among] winemakers, farmers, food producers, restaurateurs,” she said. “It’s not new here; Tuscarora Mill [in Leesburg] has been buying local produce for 20 years now.”

Brian Jenkins, business development director for Visit Loudoun, said the county is a powerful draw for “culinary travelers,” many of whom live in the region and visit Loudoun as a day trip.

It’s difficult to track how many out-of-county visitors patronize Loudoun’s restaurants, but Jenkins said research into Loudoun’s growing wine industry suggests a strong crossover into restaurants.

“Our culinary marketing strategy is geared toward the wine visitor,” he said. “They’re coming to our wine country, and dining out is one of the main activities that they do. . . . They’re educated, and affluent.”

Last year, Loudoun’s wineries averaged nearly 17,000 visitors each, Jenkins said. About 87 percent were day travelers who spent an average of $347 each; overnight guests spent closer to $800, he said.

Tourism officials hope these numbers will grow, as more destination restaurants join those now on the list, which includes Clyde’s at Willow Creek Farm in Ashburn; Fire Works Pizza in Leesburg; Goodstone Inn and Restaurant in Middleburg; Grandale restaurant in Purcellville; Lightfoot restaurant in Leesburg; Hunter’s Head Tavern in Upperville; Magnolias at the Mill in Purcellville; Market Salamander in Middleburg; Market Table Bistro in Lovettsville; Mokomandy in Sterling; the Red Fox Inn and Tavern in Middleburg; the Restaurant at Patowmack Farm in Lovettsville; Tuscarora Mill restaurant in Leesburg; and the Wine Kitchen in Leesburg.

Nominations for the Destination Restaurant Program must come from business owners, employees or patrons, and nominated restaurants must have been open for at least a year as of May 1. In addition to the established criteria, a judging committee will also consider the average user rating on top review sites such as TripAdvisor, Yelp and OpenTable, Sheetz said. The program will remain selective, she said.

“We don’t have a cap on the number of restaurants that can be accepted,” she said. “But we’re not just going to add restaurants for the sake of adding restaurants.”

Because the county wants to encourage a high-end culinary scene, it isn’t easy for restaurants to make the cut, Jenkins said.

“We definitely put those restaurants through the wringer,” he said. “Not a lot of tourism destinations will even want to start a program like that . . . but we need to put our best foot forward with these culinary travelers.”

The deadline for nominations is Friday. To nominate a restaurant, contact Stacey Sheetz at 703-669-2006 or Nominations will also be accepted on Visit Loudoun’s Facebook page and on Twitter, using the hashtag #LoudounDining.

Caitlin Gibson is a local news and features writer for The Washington Post.


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