Words by Stefanie Gans Photos by Jonathan Timmes
Ten years ago I would have expected cheap beers and fish and chips,” says my friend, an inherently cynical New York-born food writer on what to expect of a public house. “Today I’d say craft beers and fancy bar food.”
And that’s pretty much how to describe Leesburg Public House, a new restaurant in a cursed (we’ll get to that later) shopping center.
With 33 craft beers on tap and more in the bottle, bartenders can be heard explaining little-known brews to former Bud Light drinkers. Beer plays into the food as well, with such a light, crisp batter that fish floats within its fried shell. The fries lean on the greasy side, an unfortunately consistent issue at the restaurant. Fish and chips, a staple of any public house—where the term pub originated—delivers on its promise of familiarity and comfort.
The menu includes other well-worn dishes, like a decent French onion soup with lots of darkened onions and broth-soaked bread. Of course there’s a burger, but chef Mark Marrocco, who has spent the last decade running the kitchen at Purcellville’s Magnolias at the Mill, wanted to, as he says, “put a little twist on everything.” Dubbed Southern Man, this burger includes ingredients of the moment, bacon and pimento cheese, plus red pepper mayo and onions for a wholly enjoyable package.
In fact, the restaurant itself is a delight. It’s buzzing, whether it’s lunch, weeknight dinner or a Saturday night where the wait can last over an hour. The space feels modern in that mason jar-chic aesthetic: paint-chipped wood, exposed brick, dim drop lighting and, of course, water served in mason jars. It’s comfortable, too, with cozy booths and tables for large gatherings.
It feels timeless and on-trend, and it seems to have filled a need in Leesburg, something that other restaurants couldn’t. At dinner there one night, my companion, a Leesburg native, blurted out, “I expected this place not to work out because everything else closed.”
On my first visit a server joked about the troubled location, saying it must be on a burial ground. “Money was paid to the voodoo doctor, and it was money well-spent,” said the server, surveying the packed dining room.
Even Marrocco acknowledges the jinx. “Oh that building is cursed,” he says. “But everyone I talked to knew where that building is.”
Marrocco names the restaurants there before—a Ponderosa, a Chinese buffet, a wings place and lastly Ironwood Tavern. Marrocco and his business partner, Kim Ross, previously a general manager at the Fairfax Dogfish Head Alehouse, approached Ironwood’s owner about taking over the space. The owner let go of the lease even though it wasn’t for sale at the time. A year later, Marrocco, Ross and a third partner, Marty Ryan, an owner in the Dogfish Head franchises, finalized the agreement.
“This was our dream,” says Marrocco of finally owning his own restaurant. “Everyone in the restaurant business wants to open their own restaurant.”
He didn’t want to lean on any of his creations at Magnolias, so he developed this menu to fit into a gastropub theme. “We wanted to be in the middle,” he says. He wants Leesburg Public House to cater to all appetites, whether someone wants a sandwich or a steak.
But what is well-intentioned in an all-encompassing menu can lead to a stretched kitchen. The higher-end dishes don’t perform as well. The pepita-crusted salmon is cooked well but is sorely underseasoned. The crust of pumpkin seeds ends up soggy instead of snappy. Grits mixed with roasted butternut squash puree are coarse and creamy, but the accompanying Brussels sprout leaves could have been crunchier to play against the softer textures on the plate. Braised pork ran dry, though the root vegetables were plenty sweet and soft.
A spin on fettuccine Alfredo reveals Marrocco’s roots: His family owned Italian restaurants in D.C., and the pasta here is homemade. The creamy sauce combines four cheeses with bits of bacon for an indulgent and satisfying plate of noodles. There’s arancini too, flavored with pesto and served with marinara sauce cut with balsamic for much-needed pep.
The menu jumps again with braised short ribs on tostadas. Though almost impossible to eat, piled-high soft meat on top of crunchy slaw (plus beans and cheese) on a crisp tortilla is a starter giant enough to pose as a meal.
For something meaty to start but less overwhelming, the bacon popcorn fills that snacking need. Kernels are cooked in a combination of bacon fat and oil, and instead of melted butter, Marrocco tosses the popped kernels with bacon grease and tops it with bacon crumbles. Like this 2015 version of a public house, it mixes familiar with au courant. And it works.
Leesburg Public House
The bread pudding is more like molten lava cake—melty, gooey, chocolatey—if that’s what you’re after.
Appetizers: $5-$14; Entrees: $11.50-$26
Lunch and dinner daily
962 Edwards Ferry Road NE, Leesburg