It’s hard to find a bad bowl of macaroni and cheese in the area, but a few local restaurants have extraordinary versions.

When the mercury starts to drop and the days get shorter, cravings for comfort food come on strong, and for me that means indulging in some delicious macaroni and cheese. Luckily, in the Middleburg area the dish shows up on a surprising number of menus, and even local country stores and barbeque joints make a tasty version that’s perfect for a quick fix on the run.

Over the last several years I’ve made it my personal mission to find the best bowls of mac and cheese around, and while there are loads of great options, a few restaurants do have truly stand out versions. So start with these three favorites, then keep up the taste testing. It’s a long time till next spring.

Melt Gourmet Cheeseburgers

If you haven’t been to Melt, stop what you’re doing and get in the car. Don’t be fooled by this restaurant’s modest location tucked into a Leesburg strip mall; their food is obsessively prepared and absolute top quality—including the mac and cheese.

Husband-and-wife owners Steve and Debbie Hancotte used to run fine dining establishments, and they kept that same passion for exceptional food and attention to detail when they opened the casual and perennially busy Melt five years ago. As its name implies, Melt is best known for its truly delicious and creative burgers (their crab, lamb, turkey, tuna, bison and vegetarian versions have just as many fans as the traditional beef ones.) According to Trip Advisor, Melt makes the seventh-best burger in the United States, and Business Insider voted them the No. 1 burger in Virginia. Their amazing milkshakes (some of the adult variety) have earned their own awards.

Steve and Debbie Hancotte make a new flavor of mac and cheese every month at Melt in Leesburg. Photo courtesy of Steve and Debbie Hancotte

Steve and Debbie Hancotte make a new flavor of mac and cheese every month at Melt in Leesburg. Photo courtesy of Steve and Debbie Hancotte

But their mac and cheese is just as good. When Steve and Debbie sat down to plan out their menu before they opened, they decided to make a different mac and cheese every month (they have a special burger and shake of the month, too.)

“I look at seasonal ingredients and try to think what might be good,” said Steve, who jokes that he serves as the chef, janitor and handyman as well as the owner. “We try to vary the cheeses. We have something like 13 different cheeses on hand for the burgers, and sometimes we get in special ones just for the mac and cheese.”

Steve counts his four cheese with pesto as among the most popular dishes, but he has a huge variety of ingredients on hand thanks to his extensive burger menu, so he’s constantly trying out new combinations. There’s a German-inspired version (“It wasn’t a big seller, but some people still ask for it,” he said of the recipe that includes bratwurst and mustard seed) to a list of Tex-Mex takes dotted out with jalapeños, jack cheese, roasted corn and black beans. Steve’s conscious to keep kid-friendly and vegetarian-friendly recipes on heavy rotation, but he throws in plenty of creative options to keep regulars interested.

In addition to food, the Hancottes have a twin obsession in philanthropy. Poster-sized prints of adoptable animals from Loudoun County Animal Shelter and Save The Tails decorate the walls (each with the sticker asking you to let the subject “MELT your heart”). In lieu of tips Melt customers may add on cash on their tab to be donated to these organizations.

The Hancottes are also serious about combating childhood cancer, with that campaign kicking into high gear in September during childhood cancer awareness month.

Melt is delicious, but it’s hardly a hidden gem, so call ahead for take-out and expect to wait in line to place your order and maybe to find a seat, especially on weekends. But don’t turn away just because there are a few people ahead of you; the tables turn quickly, and the food is guaranteed worth the wait.

Meltgourmetcheesburgers.com

525 East Market Street

Leesburg, VA | 703-443-2105

Open Monday to Thursday, 11:00 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Market Salamander

When Jacob Musyt started his job as the director of food and beverage for Salamander Resort, resort owner Sheila Johnson gave him one non-negotiable instruction.

“She said, ‘There are two things you cannot change on the menu,’ ” recalled Musyt. “ ‘The first is the mac and cheese, and the second is the chicken fingers.’ ”

Not that he wanted to. After he tasted the mac and cheese in particular he knew it was absolutely perfect, and it’s his go-to lunch when he’s at the Market.

The secret? Nutmeg. Chef Megan Agregaard layers the pasta with Wisconsin cheddar cheese and cream and fresh-grated nutmeg, baking it once, then adds more cheese layers after that, baking it to perfection. While the mac and cheese is premade and not baked to order, that doesn’t diminish
anything for Musyt.

“For me the nutmeg was a new one,” said Musyt. “I’ve done lots of cocktails with nutmeg, so I know the complexity it adds. When Megan told me that’s in the mac and cheese it made perfect sense. It’s sounds strange to say about mac and cheese, but that nutmeg does give it a really great finish. It’s pretty damn amazing.”

Agregaard makes a fresh 12″ by 16″ batch every day (probably twice the size of what your mom makes,” said Musyt), which is usually gone by the end of the day, and if by chance it’s not, there’s a fresh batch made the next day anyway.

Market Salamander’s mac and cheese makes a perfect ready-to-go side if you’re stopping in for take-out, or a perfect sit down meal in the sunny dining room if you’ve got a bit more time.

“You’ll see some changes coming in the next four months that visitors and locals need to be on the look-out for,” said Musyt. “You’re going to see a big revamp and new inspiration brought into the Market. It will still have a local, hometown feel, but the Market is getting a facelift.”

Sure the executive chef at Salamander Resort may be getting involved, adding more local ingredients from their culinary garden like habanero peppers and sweet potatoes grown a mile away, but don’t worry: The mac and cheese isn’t going anywhere.

Marketsalamander.com

200 West Washington Street

Middleburg, VA | 540-687-8011

Open Monday to Saturday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Hunter’s Head and Gentle Harvest

When former residents come into town to visit me for the weekend, there’s never a question of where we’re going to dinner: Hunter’s Head Tavern. And on the car ride there we usually debate whether we’ll each get our own mac and cheese or order one (or more) to share. And these days you can get the same delicious meal in Marshall at Gentle Harvest as well.

Lawrence Kocurek, the executive chef at both Hunter’s Head pub and Gentle Harvest, keeps the mac and cheese pretty simple, but that doesn’t make it less delicious. Their recipe involves just one top kind of cheese, a high-quality, organic cheddar (both sister restaurants are affiliated with certified organic and certified humane Ayrshire Farm and feature ethically produced and locally sourced ingredients.)

“We start out with milk and heavy cream and add a touch of dry mustard powder,” said Kocurek. “That doesn’t make it hot, but it gives it a little added flavor. We add a rue to that as a thickening agent, then the cheese to create our mornay sauce.”

Hunter's Head Tavern and its sister restaurant, Gentle Harvest, feature a delicious, simple macaroni and cheese. Photo courtesy of Gentle Harvest

Hunter’s Head Tavern and its sister restaurant, Gentle Harvest, feature a delicious, simple macaroni and cheese. Photo courtesy of Gentle Harvest

Add the pasta, top with toasted panko breadcrumbs, bake and voilà, a deliciously creamy concoction that hits the spot every time. One of the tricks Kocurek recommends is timing the pasta carefully. A bit too long and it falls apart in the sauce; not long enough and there’s too much bite in the pasta. Even the professional chefs who cook 60 to 120 pounds of mac and cheese a week at Hunter’s Head and Gentle Harvest use a timer to make sure it’s perfectly consistent every time.

At Gentle Harvest, which bills itself as both a community store and a farm market restaurant, there are plenty of options for how to take your mac. You can pick up their signature dish in the prepared food case for now, in the cold case for tonight or the freezer for next week—along with healthy groceries and tasty treats. Or enjoy the same dish—fresh baked to order—alongside a microbrew or glass of local wine while sitting next to the fire at the tavern in Upperville. While it’s not on the menu, you can request a child’s size mac and cheese at Hunter’s Head so you can try another dish on their rotating seasonal menu as well. ML

Gentle Harvest

Gentleharvest.com

8372 West Main Street

Marshall, VA | 540-837-4405

Open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily

Hunter’s Head Tavern

Huntersheadtavern.com

9048 John S. Mosby Highway

Upperville, VA | 540-592-9020

Open Monday to Saturday, 11:30 a.m.
to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Melt’s December Mac and Cheese, featuring old cure Virginia Smithfield ham and white cheddar cheese

Courtesy of Steve and Debbie Hancotte of Melt Gourmet Cheeseburgers

Ingredients: 

  • 1 quart dry elbow pasta, cooked al dente and cooled
  • 1 ¼ lb. Smithfield ham, sliced very thin and short julienne
  • 2 ½ lb. grated white
    cheddar cheese
  • 1 lb. grated mozzarella cheese
  • 1 lb. grated provolone cheese
  • 2 tbsp. L&P
    Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 ½ tbsp. coarse black pepper
  • 1 tsp. Lawry’s salt
  • 2 tbsp. roasted garlic purée
  • 1 c. cream
  • Panko bread crumbs for
    the top
  • Scallions, thin bias cut, whites and greens, for garnish

Instructions:

  • Place cooked and cooled pasta in a large bowl. 
  • Heat the cream, pepper, Worcestershire, salt and garlic while whisking. Allow to
    cool slightly.
  • Pour the mixture over the pasta and mix very well to coat.
  • Add in the ricotta, then the cheddar, mozzarella and
    provolone cheeses.
  • Mix together very well.
  • Add the ham and toss
    very well.
  • Place in a buttered baking pan and cover with
    panko breadcrumbs.
  • Bake at 350 for 30 minutes or until golden brown on top.
  • Garnish with cut scallions, and enjoy!