By Morgan Hensley
Zan Dial, chef and owner of the Federal St. Cafe, has worked in restaurants ranging from high-end gastronomy to pub fare. His new restaurant falls somewhere in between, and it’s exactly what Middleburg needed.
Dial, a native of South Carolina, said he discovered his passion for cooking as a child.
“In those pre-Food Network days,” he said, “I would watch Julia Child on PBS and beg my mom to go buy me a pound of shrimp and a bottle of champagne for her recipes.”
He went on to graduate from the University of South Carolina in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and acceptance letters to several law schools, including his alma mater and Tulane University. However, his friends in law school looked “utterly miserable,” so Dial opted to stay at USC and earn a degree in Culinary Arts.
After graduating, Dial moved to Virginia and started NOVA Personal Chef Catering while his dreams of owning his own restaurant took form. His search for a restaurant location began in 2013 and took him throughout Loudoun County. Still, he said, he always found himself “coming back to Middleburg. I spent two years looking for a place. Then one day I was driving through town wishing something would open up and I saw it.”
The unoccupied building that once was home to Backstreet Cafe caught his eye immediately.
“I had the lease within the week,” he said. “And two months later we opened up.”
Once he found the location, he had to renovate the interior and tailor a menu to fit the space.
“It had the right atmosphere,” he said. “We saw an opportunity to take it and make it ours.”
His wife, Ann, oversaw the interior design components, including a gray and sky-blue color scheme and purposefully mismatched chairs.
“It’s not the kind of place for pressed white tablecloths,” Dial said. “We went for ‘inviting but not elegant.’ ”
When planning the menu, Dial said he consulted Middleburg residents and the consensus was that the village was missing a casual establishment that served a moderately priced breakfast.
“I was looking to do my own thing while filling a void,” he said. “Just doing what makes sense in a town this small.”
The menu is the result of the town’s input and Dial’s philosophy on food.
“You don’t need to deconstruct the cheeseburger,” he said. “Use great ingredients and treat them right.”
The breakfast menu includes the usual cornerstones: omelets, pancakes, and biscuits slathered in gravy. On the lunch and
dinner menu, grilled filet mignon is adjacent to sweet tea-brined fried chicken and waffles, a dish that both parodies and reveres Southern cuisine. In between you’ll find a bacon pimento cheeseburger, seasonal salads, build-your-own sandwiches and “redneck eggrolls” (the product of a hangover and some convenient pulled pork leftovers).
The restaurant opened June 9 and almost immediately created a buzz about town and lived up to Dial’s vision of a “place to hang out on the deck and drink a beer, but also a place to bring the kids and family in for Sunday brunch.”
To celebrate the early success and good customer reviews, Dial planned a grand opening replete with a prix fix dinner of garlic steamed mussels, watermelon gazpacho, and filet mignon. However, just before the event, a balky water heater went out, derailing his best laid plans.
Despite that initial setback, Dial said business has grown between 10 to 30 percent week after week, which “speaks highly of the town. (The cafe) already has its regulars. I know exactly what they want in their omelet as they’re walking up to the door.”
Dial looks forward to the cafe’s future and said he hopes to gradually increase the restaurant’s outside catering business while building relationships with nearby farms to add more local ingredients to the Southern-stylemenu. In addition to watching his restaurant grow and further ingratiate itself into the community, Dial eagerly anticipates fatherhood, with his first child, a daughter, due in February.