The Inn at Little Washington – Washington, VA
Decades before the widespread propagation of the very idea of "fine dining" in America, DC native and self-taught chef Patrick O'Connell and his business partner Reinhardt Lynch purchased a two-story auto garage in the middle of rural Virginia at the feet of the Blue Ridge Mountains, some two hours west of DC, with a dream of converting it into a restaurant and bringing French-style fine dining to the region. Within months of opening, the rave reviews were pouring in from DC's elite, and emboldened, the team ventured to France to visit fine dining restaurants in a country setting, returning filled with inspiration and the gumption to reach the highest culinary heights.
It's been 44 years, and what is now the Inn at Little Washington still stands as a cathedral of American fine dining, and O'Connell its pope. Earning scores of accolades through the 90s and aughts, the restaurant reached the pinnacle of fine dining recognition in 2018 when it was awarded a coveted third Michelin star––to date, it's the only east coast restaurant outside New York City to hold that honor, and the only one in the US outside of New York, Chicago, and Northern California.
What is remarkable about Little Washington is its unabashed old-school timelessness. In a fine dining world dominated by minimalist dining rooms in the middle of major cities and guided by the cutting-edge techniques and sourcing principles pioneered by the folks at places like Noma, Little Washington's universe sticks to that hyper-luxurious, oh-so-French white tablecloth vibe, the same atmosphere that has attracted politicians, celebrities, food and wine rockstars, DC glitterati, and even royalty for decades. The old school approach doesn't mean that The Inn is not also doing progressive work around sustainability––it's relationships with a thriving network of local farmers and proprietors and its sourcing from its own small farm earned it a Michelin Green Star for sustainability.
The Inn is a true destination in a way that is rare in fine dining these days––you must travel nearly two hours out of the city, and out of cell phone range, to reach the property, which is really the only major attraction in the village. Decked to the nines in elaborate Victorian and Colonial touches evocative of a lavish European country retreat, the destination and the immersion into the theatre of classic luxury is exactly the point––“fantality,” they call it, a "dreamlike state" which is "the idyllic blend between fantasy and reality." Diners wanting more "fantality" can stay in one of the Inn's equally opulent rooms for a cool $1500 nightly.
In my culinary journey, you might guess (correctly) that I have had little reason to saunter out into the hinterlands of rural Virginia to eat. Hell, before this summer I'd only been to DC for 36 total hours. I'd seen photos of Little Washington and it's food and always thought it looked sort of stuffy and even a little silly, and perusing the menu never found much too "interesting," so it hadn't really been high on my list. But since I had my car with me on the east coast, and planned to check nearby Shenandoah National Park off my list the next day, despite my qualms about the place, I thought, "why not?"
I came down from Shenandoah after a lovely hike to Hawksbill Summit and checking in to my campsite in search of a strong WiFi signal to knock out a couple hours of work before heading to my dinner at Little Washington.
It quickly became clear the only place I could find a reasonable signal was at the Inn itself, so I had the absurdly dressed valets park my car and inquired about the possibility of sitting in the lobby to work before my dinner. They were happy to oblige and sat me in the nearly grotesquely opulent lounge, complete with speakers softly playing a peculiar combo of jazz standards and country music.
The staff quickly brought forth a trio of snacks––spiced pineapple, candied pecans, and olives marinated in herbs––and a thick drink menu. A boozy gin martini flavored with rose essence was my choice. Too expensive but a lovely addition to some otherwise tedious work tasks.
I wasn't expecting little "courses" to arrive as I waited and worked, but the "fantality" of the evening started straight away with a server offering me "dinner and a show" with a helping of white truffle popcorn topped with parmesan and served in a proprietary Inn at Little Washington popcorn box. Delicious, as you might well imagine, though greasy fingers weren't conducive to typing!
A small basket of parmesan and chive gougères, a hollow, flaky French pastry, followed the popcorn. Also fantastic, with a spectacularly delicate, salty exterior giving way to the warm pocket inside. One can certainly see how travels to fine dining restaurants in France inspired so much of Chef Patrick's approach.
A surprising twenty minutes after my reservation time, I was finally summoned from my work in the lounge and led into the main dining room, the stuff of a decadent European country hunting lodge. The lamp over my table needed to be moved to the side any time I needed to enter or exit, and it was next to impossible to see the face of any member of the staff who came to the table unless they stood well to my right, in the space of the table next to me, or leaned over. Most just talked through the lamp.
While I understand that Chef Patrick has a flair for the dramatic and over-the-top and they see the Inn as a place of "fantality," it seems something as crucial as being able to see the staff when they speak to you might be more important than the floofiness of the lamp in any restaurant, let alone a restaurant of this prestige and caliber. I was glad, however, to see that they'd finally done away with the utterly terrifying mannequins in the dining room, which were installed during the early days of pandemic re-opening to make the dining room feel more full despite socially distanced tables. Instead of being cute, in this perennial cynic's opinion, it made one of the only thirteen three-Michelin-starred restaurants in the US into the stuff of nightmares. Glad I didn't see the rumored masks with Marilyn Monroe's smile or George Washington's chin.
There's so much about the presentational aesthetic here, in fact, that is so dated that it's nearly laughable. Granted, the decadent décor does somehow work and inspires a sense of old world elegance. But the servers with name tags, the women on the waitstaff with matching frou-frou purple tops, or the problematic view-obstructing table lamp were incredibly out-of-place for an establishment at this level of fine dining. Even the menus, although personalized nicely with a welcome and a photo of Chef in his classic Dalmatian-print apron, use font that would have been at home at an haute restaurant in the 90s. Classic elegance is one thing, and stubborn clinging to the past, if that is indeed what it occurring, is another.
The mark of the restaurant, however, should be its food, and it was about time I tried some after some delicious but pedestrian snacks in the lounge. An amuse bouche course made its way to the table shortly after I completed my main course order through the lamp––a potato chip "cannoli" delicately piped with house-made pimento cheese and chives, complete with a warning not to eat the decorative rock beneath it. Guess they have had problems! Again, this was a perfectly tasty bite, but sadly with too little inventiveness or imagination to make it interesting.
I couldn't pass up a glass of Champagne to pair with the opulent setting, and a nice glass of Gimonnet Gonet was a fantastic way to settle in. Enjoying these bubbles took the edge off of my critical eye and I instead allowed myself to bask in the sort of absurd whimsy of the place while awaiting more nosh. Bread soon followed––a poppyseed baguette and pecan loaf––accompanied by a little "beehive" of butter topped with flaky fleur de sel. The fat kid in me is always happy to see bread service these days!
Perched in a beguiling little nest, an egg that housed a sort of foamy parmesan custard came next, presenting yet another exercise in simple-to-execute umami that was tasty, but uninspired. The presentation, however, was rather breathtaking.
The Inn's menu is fairly atypical in the constellation of restaurants occupying this tier because they have eschewed the ubiquitous double-digit-course tasting menu concept for a more traditional amuse-plus-five-courses format. Because I had an imposing 45 minute drive back to my campsite in the park after dinner, I avoided the five-glass wine pairing in favor of a few pours by the glass. Sancerre, a classic sauvignon blanc from France, seemed a food-friendly option for the first several courses, though I think I offended the wine director when I lightly scoffed at her suggestion of the most expensive white wine on the menu to start (and the by-the-glass wine prices here are absolutely bananas for some perfectly nice but hardly luxurious pours). This Sancerre from Lucien Crochet fit the bill nicely, with lively and acidic grapefruit balanced by toasty aromas of dried hay.
Beet-cured hamachi started the savory course procession, resting on ribbons of golden and red beet "pasta," topped with a spoonful of beet tartare, and sitting in a shallow pool of transparent citrus sauce. Now we were talking––the delicateness of this dish is much more congruent with the trajectory of fine dining elsewhere, and the elements of citrus and thoughtful placement of herbs lifted the somewhat earthy beets to meet the glistening, cool flesh of the fish. Chef's work was finally starting to speak to me.
One of Chef's signature dishes came swiftly after the hamachi was cleared. In a square of twelve thin slices, bright red herb-crusted lamb carpaccio was a vehicle for croutons, microgreens, chives, capers, and "Caesar salad ice cream," a Caesar dressing in frozen form. At the top of the plate was a purée of Brussels sprouts leaves and a whole leaf carrying a nest of microplaned parmesan. This is a creative take on a Caesar salad that happens to be remarkably thin on any manner of green, and though the raw lamb was fantastic and the play with temperature in the Caesar ice cream thoughtful, I would have loved to have left this "salad" course feeling like I had actually eaten my evening's worth of vegetables.
It's still unclear to me precisely what a "chartreuse" is, but the half-brain-like loaf that was ferried to my table next apparently bore that name. What seemed to be a gelled mousse of lobster and cauliflower layered with cabbage leaves comprised the chartreuse, and a young server poured rings of lemon and caviar beurre blanc around the plate. Chartreuse tastes better than it looks, it seems, though the heavy lifting of the dish came from the simultaneously rich, vibrant, and slightly briny beurre blanc, which I was happy to sop up with bread after the chartreuse was conquered.
Red wine was necessary for the next dish, and sensing that the wine director at one of the most powerful restaurants in the world might have been a bit put off by our earlier interaction, I put myself in her hands and let her pair a glass for me. Fortunately, it was exactly the wine I'd been eyeing with the forthcoming squab––Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Domaine Grand Veneur. Châteauneuf, made with grenache in the Rhône, comes from a hill surrounding an old papal castle (hence, "new house of the pope") covered in distinctly rocky soils. The resulting wines are ripe with deeply expressive red fruits and a backbone of stony minerality evocative of the unique soil type. One of my favorite AOCs in France, though I found it rather painful paying $45 (!) for a glass of this entry-level Châteauneuf which retails for only about $55 per bottle.
The squab was the star of the savory courses, particularly with the wine, and pushed the uneven meal well into the "successful" column. Atop a root veg purée, candied cherries, and rhubarb compote, the slices of brilliantly grilled young pigeon were made even more decadent by a helping of seared foie gras. A classic but absolutely brilliant dish.
In lieu of the dessert course, you can pay an extra $30 for the honor of Cameron selecting some cheese for you. While it seems to make more sense to ask for a $30 supplement to provide cheese in addition to dessert, I was happy to cough up the upcharge to enjoy some cheese with the last gasps of my Châteauneuf. One of the more whimsical touches at The Inn is the cheese cart fashioned from a plaster cow on wheels that is pushed around the dining room complete with cowbell by "cheese whiz" Cameron, who accompanies the cow's movements with one of those little cow-sound cans that he turns upside-down to trigger "mooing" as he walks. The whole thing would be absolutely ridiculous if the cheese selection wasn't so wonderful and Cameron so charming.
Along with some bread and crackers, Marcona almonds, preserves, and a single dried apricot, I let Cameron serve up a creamy Délice de Bourgogne, an extra-sharp cheddar from Wisconsin, an aromatic blue cheese, a creamy rinded goat cheese, and another triple crème. Fabulous selection and certainly an entertaining presentation.
To close the meal, I ordered one of The Inn's Manhattans, a specialty of the house mixologists, and closed with bites including a coconut and passionfruit sorbet with frozen ginger and a sheet of dark chocolate with puffed grain and sea salt. The manager came to speak to me after the last dessert bite for a good amount of time, as he seemed to do with every table, which was a nice touch.
After dinner, I stopped by the facilities to relieve myself and was met with a bottle of Chef Patrick's favorite cologne on the counter next to the ornate sink with a sign inviting guests to sample. I mention this because I think this cologne is a perfect metaphor for this restaurant. The cologne smells very nice; it's expensive; it's luxurious and decadent; it's over-the-top. And, the fact that it's here for all of the guests is a testament to the place's welcoming spirit. But, with old fashioned, old world (it's French, of course) aromas of patchouli, bergamot, and musky leather, it seems like a relic; it's heavy-handed; it's a bit out-of-touch and dated; and it's too damn expensive for what it is––you can buy a bottle in their shop for an breathtaking $135 in case you haven't spent enough money here yet.
Don't get me wrong––the food at The Inn is mostly excellent and sometimes superlative. The quail in particular is among the best main courses I've enjoyed. I appreciate Chef Patrick and team's vision of "fantality," of The Inn being a place where you escape to an entirely different world, and many of the surroundings certainly bring that to life. But they seem to be simultaneously leaning into near-cartoonish whimsy and white-tablecloth-old-fashioned French, which seem rather cognitively dissonant. Granted, there's a certain clientele to which he is trying to cater––wealthy, often older lawyers, doctors, wealth managers, investors, and power brokers, as well as the political and celebrity class––which the place does rather accurately. Not necessarily the crowd seeking cutting-edge fare.
For this more esoteric kid, though, while I'm glad I found myself in the area to try it, I'd hesitate to spend this much money on a meal here a second time. At this price point, I could indulge in some very serious, progressive tasting menus at restaurants that are constantly pushing boundaries and exploring the new frontiers of fine dining in America. It's nuts to have what is essentially a five-course prix fixe cost this much; it's breathtakingly nuts to charge $45 for a glass of wine that costs $55 per bottle in the store. And I had the literal last night of the old menu prices before they added another $20 to the menu cost! For less than a third of what I spent here, I had a far more interesting meal at Albi in DC, just 90 minutes away, the night before, and the DC class who might be compelled to come out to Little Washington wouldn't have to leave the Beltway to experience Albi.
We are past the age of fine French food with bussers in tuxes and name tags, even in cities like Paris. The best restaurants in the world practice principled cooking rooted in sustainability, culinary cosmopolitanism, and agricultural ingenuity; being inspired by and re-interpreting regional ingredients and recipes; groundbreaking programs like whole animal butchery; the important position of the restaurant in the community and the way they contribute to the progress of foodways for those who can't access their dining tables. The Inn might have a Green Star from Michelin, but I struggle to find anything inventive here that might move the art and science of food forward rather than in stasis. Instead, what I find is excellent food in an environment built to exude nostalgia, exclusivity, and wealth. To my mind, that's not what food is about anymore.