Little Washington, big taste: A Central Virginia high-wire act

The Inn at Little Washington has been setting people up for disappointment for years. About an hour and twenty minutes north, just past Sperryville in the small town of Washington, the Inn has become a veritable shrine for the world's foodies. As a result, its storied reputation, considerable expense, and remote location can cause people to harbor wild expectations and plan their visits years in advance.

"My parents have wanted to go there for 20 years," says a longtime Charlottesville resident.  "Now they're finally planning to go for their 50th wedding anniversary…and that's in five years."

It's kind of funny, people expecting such a transcendent experience from a meal, but when Chef Patrick O'Connell decided to locate his restaurant in the middle of nowhere, he set himself up for offering nothing less than perfection.

It's a problem that O'Connell and his staff are acutely aware of, and one unique to the best restaurants in the world–- when expectations are so high, how do you keep delivering? How do you stave off disappointment?

O'Connell addresses these questions in his cathedral-like kitchen, where a half-a-dozen cooks scurry around gleaming copper and brass stove units, and liturgical music plays as the sun pours in through a high bank of windows. Enmeshed in the elaborate crown moldings above the kitchen entrance are five words inscribed in Roman lettering: anticipation, trepidation, inspection, fulfillment, evaluation.

As O'Connell explains–- as he has perhaps to many journalists over the years–- it's a facetious homage to Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ classic The Five Stages of Grief.

O'Connell describes these "five stages of dining" in psychological terms, comparable to the experience of a patient seeing a sympathetic therapist: the patient's enormous anticipation when arriving, the fear that it might not be what you expected, followed by careful inspection, fulfillment ("You hope," O'Connell adds), and finally, evaluation, in which you fix memories and prepare to tell your story to others.

Accordingly, the Inn's staff is actually trained to respond to a list of possible psychological responses from customers, inspired in part by the advice of psychologist Carl Rogers, who said that “the only goal of the therapist is being there for what is.”

"The same can be said for a good restaurateur," writes O'Connell in some of the Inn's literature. "Our role is to provide a much needed sanctuary from a world becoming even more dehumanized, desensitized, and disconnected."

Of course, this kind of therapy isn't cheap. Dinner for two can run about $600 with wine and tip, and that's close to what a room for the night can cost. (Thankfully, ours was comped.)

In 2001, the editors of the New Yorker assembled an anthology called The New Gilded Age: The New Yorker Looks at the Culture of Affluence, which documented the effects of the enormous individual wealth created during the technological revolution. Included was a story about the Inn by Tony Horwitz, which describes the effect that its glitzy success has had on the small town where it's located, and explores some of the boundless excess that occurs at the Inn–- as Horwitz revealed, a party of six once spent $26,000 for dinner.

More than three decades ago, O'Connell and then partner Reinhardt Lynch opened the restaurant in Washington's former gas station, and one can imagine that the flamboyant couple and their flourishing venture were the center of attention in the little village. Over the years, the Inn has received just about every honor there is, from membership in the exclusive Relais & Châteaux hotel group in 1987, to numerous James Beard Awards, to the first ever 5 Diamond Award from AAA. Celebrities and DC power brokers are frequent visitors. The actor Paul Newman celebrated his birthday at the inn, and former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan and his wife, reporter Andrea Mitchell, were married there. Al Gore, Barbara Streisand, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Warren Beatty and Annette Bening have all been guests. In the 1990s, due to all the air traffic, the local government considered putting a ban on helicopter landings in the area.

In 2006, after a heated court battle in which O'Connell sought to seize full control of the Inn, he and Lynch parted ways, but not before O'Connell had to shell out $17.5 million to buy out Lynch's half of the business.

Tensions between the Inn and the locals have diminished in recent years, but ever since O'Connell and Lynch dubbed the town "little" Washington and ushered in so much flamboyant glitz, there has been a bit of disconnect.

"This kitchen has the feel of a church," a reporter comments.

O'Connell's face lights up.

"Well, you know, I have been referred to as the Pope of American cuisine," he laughs, his head tilted back and his mouth wide open, revealing a bit of the thespian he wanted to be in his youth. He then told us that he had actually met the Pope, Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, a Bavarian foodie who apparently does some of his own cooking at the Vatican.

Clearly he's having his fun with with the religion here. When guests enter the kitchen, they are greeted by O'Connell standing at the end of a small hallway, with his staff lined up behind him, and one lucky staffer dressed as an altar boy swings a thurible. Meanwhile, O'Connell and his staff sport dalmatian-print aprons, a homage to two lately beloved dogs, immortalized in a large painting of O'Connell by Rise Delmar Ochsner, a portrait artist who has also painted Mick Jagger and Julia Child. Apparently, the dalmatians used to greet guests at the front door wearing pearls.

"We got in a little trouble with the locals when a photo of this came out," O'Connell smiles, and one can imagine a town elder seeing an image of O'Connell performing what appears to be a Catholic religious ceremony in his kitchen.

Still, it's clear that he enjoys being provocative. During our conversation in the kitchen, O'Connell requests some refreshing sparkling wine (it is close to 100 degrees outside) and some popcorn. Popcorn?  Yes, only the Inn's perfectly popped and seasoned popcorn is served in miniature old-fashioned movie house popcorn boxes and covered with truffle shavings: camp meets elegant.

"You know, in dog shows dalmatians are judged by how uniform the spaces are between their dots, and that they don't touch," O'Connell says after questions about the dalmatian aprons. While he notes that his dalmatians were not show dogs, and suggested that they might have been the slightly unbalanced descendants of the breed, that fascination with detail is telling. Everywhere one looks there is a fastidious attention to detail; from the gleaming kitchen to the polished wine glasses that almost look invisible, from the chandelier in the chicken coop which is actually a painted gazebo, to the food dishes of course, which arrive in such innovative and intricate arrangements that they are like serious paintings, demanding short, admiring silences.

Likewise, the Inn's lavish interiors, which at first seem oddly disjointed–-a Victorian-era theme in one room, a tromp l'oeil of bright green lattice work and smartly dressed monkeys in another–- add another dimension to the experience, as it's almost immediately apparent that there is a kind of genius at work. O'Connell has worked with British designer Joyce Conwy Evans since 1981. Evans is a famed London set designer, and has worked on private commissions for the Royal Family. Her ideas have sometimes had outlandish price tags; like cutting up expensive, hand-painted wallpapers to create her own design for the ceiling of the dining room for example, but the result is a room that bathes visitors in its complexities.

Yet somehow the dining experience is so lacking in cloistering formalities and stuffiness that it feels not unlike spending an evening at a very good friend's house. Indeed, the Inn is basically O'Connell's home, and his particular personality is infused into its every detail.

You could say he encourages a cult of personality, a kind of over-the-top knack for public relations. His historian Rachel Hayden, the Inn's Director of Public Relations is a fine cook in in her own right, and the onsite farmer, Joneve Murphy, toils happily in the dirt in the 100-degree heat, her tattooed arms and big hands caked in dust, excited about the ripening eggplant and the cherry tomatoes. Then of course, there's the cheesemonger, a young man with a mock seriousness and sense of the absurd that would make him a good stand-in for Steven Colbert. 

Likewise, the Inn's sommelier, Jennifer Knowles, is frighteningly competent, pairing wines with each dish like a mechanic suggesting parts essential to coaxing an abandoned car to life. Yet when we gushed over a refreshing strawberry-flavored wine, she was unrestrained, blurting out enthusiastically that she had "grabbed the bottle and started guzzling it" the first time she tasted it.

The food, taking into account the hot weather, incorporates a few refreshing details, like a dollop of cold cucumber sorbet on a sesame-crusted raw slice of Ahi tuna, a chilled Maine lobster, and an overflowing tin of American Osetra caviar with a cucumber rillette.

"I was never a fan of caviar," says O'Connell, before breaking into a sleepy-eyed grin of pleasure, "until I had really good caviar."

The ingredients are mostly local, but not because O'Connell has jumped on the farm-to-table bandwagon. As he explains, 30 years ago the only thing you could get delivered in Rappahannock County was milk. Sourcing local food was a necessity. Essentially, O'Connell built the wagon.

There's a remarkably tender grilled pigeon breast, given a startling color by a blueberry vinegar marinade, along with a Chesapeake Bay soft-shell crab cooked tempura-style, balanced on a fried green tomato and wielding a crispy piece of speck ham.

According to Hayden, O'Connell doesn't much like difficult presentations or underwhelming portions. "How am I supposed to eat that?" Hayden says O'Connell once complained when presented with a sculpture-like dish at another restaurant. (The way Hayden tells the story, it's clear that dining with O'Connell can be a cringe-producing experience, for as welcoming and friendly as he can be, he clearly does not suffer fools easily). Indeed, a row of lamb loin pieces crusted in parsley and served with fava beans and a simple brush stroke of béarnaise sauce evoked summer, satisfying that need for "fulfillment," and setting the stage for an unusual cheese presentation, the refreshing strawberry wine, and a  coffee and desert dénouement.

Indeed, it's a luxurious experience, falling into the care of O'Connell and his staff, who know more about what you are going through by eating there than you do.

But is it worth it? It's both marvelous and completely frivolous, the kind of experience you're careful not to tell your socialist friends about. When preparing and serving food becomes a fetish, a form of high art, does it also become an absurd display of excess? For the price of one meal at the Inn at Little Washington, a family of four could buy a month's worth of groceries. But what if the meal is really, really good and you leave the restaurant feeling euphoric?

Like our celebrities, restaurants can also be famous for being famous, causing people to go through all sorts of emotional contortions when confronted with them. Perhaps that's why people have such anxieties about dining at the Inn, postponing the trip until some momentous occasion in the future, as if the enjoyment of that kind of pleasure were like dying–- to be put off for as long as possible. 

"What kind of cheese do you use to coax a bear down a mountain?" asks cheesemonger Cameron Smith, presiding over an overflowing cheese plate he has wheeled out on a ceramic cow named Fiara.


A cheese called Up In Smoke, says Smith, was named after a Cheech and Chong movie, and he explains that the cheese undergoes a two step smoking process called the Tillamook Burn, named for a decades-long forest fire in Oregon. "The cheese has a balance of creaminess, crème fraiche, and smokiness," says Smith, "like when the van door opens in the movie it's named after."

We also learn that one cheese is so good because "during the hydrolysis of the proteins found in the milk caseins a white crystalline amino acid called tyrosine, with the chemical formula of C9H11No3, is created which is a precursor to thyroxine, melanin, and epinephrine which gives us euphoria in the things that we enjoy in life."

Driving back to Charlottesville, it's hard not to be a bit perplexed by what just happened, as it's not so much a meal as it is a theater performance with food, accompanied by a three-hour therapy session. Your wallet or purse might be lighter, but your expectations about what a meal at a restaurant can be will never be the same.


Read more on: Inn at Little Washington


Very interesting and positive article about the Inn. I thought when I read the first sentence it might be harshly critical.
One thing that might have been included is the "Perimeter Walk", a rustic trail through the Inn's grounds that is open to the public.
I grew up in the county near there and have recently moved back to it. After spending the past Friday in Washington(though not at the Inn) I feel so fortunate that I was able to do so.Rappahannock is so unlike Charlottesville, and for that I am grateful.

I worked at the Inn from 1997-2000 and it was an experience!
My first day was the same day as the Mitchell/greenspan reception.
I was told to just say "no comment" to the throngs of reporters. It was
definitely daunting!
I was in management, so I attended a lot of meetings. One thing Chef
extolled on us was how to make our guests happy. He used a rating
system. Of course, the lower the rating meant someone was unhappy.
(They were rated as soon as they entered through the doors) So, if you
were rated say a were then wined and dined and comped and
appetizer or a bottle of wine. Then they were re-rated (so to speak)
and we made sure the rating was then elevated, therefore making
everyone happy! (get my drift and a little hint hint for anyone wanting to
go there! ;) )
Patrick would also tell us to think as the Inn as a stage and we are the
Performers. And we did and it was quite fun. All though at the end of
the day, many of us would make a bee line to Mrs. Cox's tavern for
a much deserved drink!
Chef can be very difficult at times but, I always felt he deserved to be
so. He built a multi million dollar industry. Built up the economy of a
small town, all on his talents alone. His chefs during my time there,
held a contest for Patrick. They all made the most wonderful dishes
with the most complex ingredients and had Chef taste each one and
to stump him, he had to name every ingredient. And you know what?
The man never missed one! he has the most amazing palate of anyone
I have ever known. The Man knows how to cook, present and Schmooz!
I could go on and on!! :)

Of course, this kind of therapy isn't cheap. Dinner for two can run about $600 with wine and tip, and that's close to what a room for the night can cost. (Thankfully, ours was comped.)
This line stood out to me mainly because that's a pricey dinner and stay. But also, the latter part of the quote makes me wonder who "ours" is. The author is Dave and the photos were by Courtney. How many rooms were comped?

@just sayin'

Just dinner was comped. We did not stay at the Inn.

Wow. I've driven through Washington VA, it's a really neat little town to drive through and only a short distance off 522 North of Sperryville. Hopefully all the restaurants there aren't that expensive!

When I worked there, the only other places to eat were Mrs. Cox's Tavern (no longer there. The Inn turned it into a gift shop) and there was a really nice Cafe next to the Post Office. Which Patrick and Reinhardt owned the building. The reservations office was above it.

The Country Cafe next to the post office is still there. I ate there last Friday. Also the Stonyman Gourmet on Gay Street has drinks,salads,deli sandwiches, open Friday through Tuesday. And understand another eatery is coming to the twon sometime this fall.
In Sperryville, try Burgers and Things, Thornton River Grille, High On The Hog Barbecue,and Rudy's Pizza.The last has the "best pizza in Sperryville".Of course ts the only pizza in Sperryville! LOL!

Oh wow., that's good to know that more places to dine have opened up In Washington Va. Gay Street, that is next to the Rose Cottage. Does the Inn own it? The Country Cafe I remember was family owned and they made the most wonderful homemade desserts! (very fattening!) It's definitely country (comfort) cooking.
I love Sperryville as well. It's so full of eclectic individuals.
I am going to have to make it a point to go visit the area again. I may not be able to afford to stay at the Inn, but there are lovely little B&B's there. I have stayed at the Foster-Harris House and it was very nice. Definitely recommended. :)

Don't think the Inn owns Stonyman Gourmet. And don't forget that Gay Street has two wonderful entertainment venues, that offer plays ,music, movies. The Theatre in Washington Va and the RAAC building(thats Rappahannock Association for Arts in the Community) across the street.
And of course the Castleton Festival in June and July for everything from opera to bluegrass.

It's a really neat place to see, almost like a storybook village.

I knew Patrick and Reinhardt when they were in the kitchen of the 1789 in Georgetown. The owner of the 1789 and I are fellow alums from a prep school in New York City. I enjoyed many a meal there. The food was always great and different in a good way. The 1789 now belongs to the Clyde's Group. I've been back since the new ownership took over and it is still a very elegant and wonderful place to dine. I can't remember the name of the chef who took over when Patrick and Reinhardt left around 1978. I've been to the Inn at Little Washngton and spent the night there. Great food, attractive accomodations and it has come a long way since its days in the gas station.

Little Washington is a very hip town and the Inn brought much of that hipness to this quaint and historic place. Their presence also spawned several other fun and different dining opportunities in the town and the surrounding area. I miss the Four and Twenty Blackbirds and its first rate brunch.

Glad Patrick is doing so well and keeping the placean fresh with an ever changing menu and decor.

Oh yes, Four and Twenty, that was in Flint Hill. That was a great place to dine!

Have not been there, but understand there is a restaurant called 24 Crows at Four and Twenty's location now. I ate there years ago. Also at the Black Kettle and Brambles in Washington, both gone.
Flint Hill also has the Griffin Tavern and the Flint Hill Public House, both a bit pricey(though not like the Inn).