Twice a week, at 6:30 a.m., I drive my son from Waterford to Purcellville for fitness training with a private instructor. It’s supposed to strengthen his pitching arm and increase his speed for football. There’s no coffee shop open in Purcellville at that time and my habit has been to just nap in the car until he finished. Then my friend Georgia told me about Hamilton Mercantile. Located on Hamilton’s main street, I knew it was a health food store and there was no way it was open at 7 a.m. She said to go and see. Sure enough, operating out of a window counter out back was an open-air coffee shop, a barista serving perfect lattes and espresso drinks. A few in-the-know locals waited in line or sipped their brews on Adirondack chairs in a serene garden. I felt as if I’d stumbled on the best kept secret in Loudoun.
Of course, there are other hidden gems in Loudoun - if you know how to find them. At the risk of giving the game away, we selected these seven secrets to make you feel like an insider.
Country Line Dancing at The Loudoun Kitchen & Bar, Leesburg
Loudoun has a great music scene but Texas-style line dancing to classic country music is not the first genre that comes to mind. Come Tuesday and Saturday nights though and the floor of this sprawling grill next to the Giant supermarket off Leesburg’s Catoctin Circle turns into a Fort Worth-style honky-tonk. Regulars come dressed to the nines in alligator boots, Stetsons, jeans and sequined shirts and they know all the right moves from the Two-Step to the Waltz. It gets serious but there are usually lessons with instructors from LineDance4You.com for those who are still beginners.
Blacksmithing at Lawless Forge, Sterling
Fancy going all Game of Thrones and crafting your own blade out of molten steel? How about forging a metal bottle opener out of a horseshoe? The art of Blacksmithing might have faded with the industrial age but at Lawless Forge in Sterling, groups, friends and families (including kids as young as six) can bond over fire and furnace, hammer in hand during three-hour long blacksmith classes. Among items you can make are steak knives, box cutters and BBQ forks for grilling meat – or marshmallows. A tip: make sure to wear closed-toe shoes.
New York-style pizza at Teddy’s, Middleburg
My friend Tom worked for the FBI in New York and spent many months staking out mob joints in famous Italian neighborhoods. As a result, he knows his pizza. Since he moved to Loudoun he says there’s only one spot that compares to the best old school New York pizzerias and that’s Teddy’s in Middleburg. Tucked away on Federal Street, owner Teddy comes from a long line of Italian New Yorkers (his father Lenny had a pie shop in Brooklyn) and he’s brought the secrets here: thin crisp crust, sweet sauce, ample cheese, jars of oregano and red pepper to sprinkle on top. Order a slice and make like a New Yorker by folding it in half when you eat. Oh, and if you ever use a fork, Tom will arrest you.
Loudoun Farm Cheese
Fifty or so years ago Loudoun was one of the most prolific dairy farming regions in the world; milk droplets even appear on the county flag to show the historic importance of the industry. Only a handful of dairies remain but Loudoun has seen a resurgence of farm-made artisanal cheeses that can be bought at source. Georges Mill Farm in Lovettsville produces a range of superb goat cheeses – rich and creamy chevre, feta, Eula blue and Cavalry Camp Ash - from their herd of free-ranging Alpine goats. You can buy it in local groceries but also at the rustic “honor system” farm store on the property. In Middleburg, Locksley Farmstead Cheese Co., part of The Ag District, produces eight superb European-style cow cheeses including an incredible camembert. Try it with farm-made bread and Chrysalis Vineyards wine in the tasting room on site. Talking dairies, Brookfield Dairy Farm on Hamilton Station Road sells ice cream on site and also produces butter and raw milk for local milkshares.
Tarbenders Lounge, Leesburg
Secret bars with hidden doorways and codewords to enter are all the rage in hipster neighborhoods of New York, Chicago and Austin. But Leesburg? Well, yes… Tarbenders is a cool speakeasy-style cocktail lounge that you enter through an unmarked side door within the tiny Benders Brooklyn Bites shop on happening King Street. Step inside and it’s another world: low ceilings, intimate booths, moody lamp light, long Tiki bar... You feel as if you’ve stumbled on a Hollywood lounge from the 50s. The spectacular cocktail list includes a range of mezcal and rum drinks and they have a tasty small plates menu, too.
Hamilton Mercantile on Hamilton’s East Colonial Highway has been a natural food store since the 1970s. In 2021 it was bought by local residents Meredith Brown and Abbie Whitehurst who had met while working at King Street Coffee in Leesburg. Noticing there was no coffee bar open early mornings, they installed a window counter out back from which they now serve superb joe with local Lone Oak beans from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. each morning. They do espressos, filter coffee, lattes with grass-fed milk and seasonal specials such as eggnog and spiced pumpkin lattes. The main shop opens at 10. a.m. after the coffee bar moves indoors. On top of great coffee, you can also buy all manner of locally sourced or made gems: candles, lotions, soap, wine, beer, vitamins, supplements, bread, pastry and fresh farm produce.
Hidden Wine Shops
Being wine country Loudoun has multiple vineyards and tasting rooms, but it’s also home to a slate of hidden or at least hard-to-find wine shops. In the back of the Round Hill branch of Mom’s Apple Pie for example, wine merchant Bush Nichols curates one of the most extensive wine selections in the county. He sources the vintages himself and can advise customers on everything from the latest Austrian Gruner to must-buy Loudoun Albariño. Down south, in historic Aldie, the rustic Aldie Peddler on Route 50 sells hand-crafted Amish furniture alongside a selection of great wines from Argentina, Australia, California, Loudoun, Spain and beyond. Who knew? In Paeonian Springs just off the Washington & Old Dominion Trail, Vino9market is a small grocery selling chips, beer, takeout BBQ and Indian food and an excellent selection of American and European wines. Quite the combination. On bustling King Street in downtown Leesburg, Leesburg Gourmet specializes in cheese, charcuterie and Neuhaus Belgian chocolate but also high-end French, Italian, Spanish and New World wines. Cover all your bases in one shop.