Patrick O’Connell might be the most honored chef in America. Co-owner of the Inn at Little Washington, O’Connell’s culinary creations have won the restaurant world’s version of the Triple Crown: a record five James Beard Foundation Awards, a Mobil Five Star Award, and a Grand Award from Wine Spectator. The Inn at Little Washington—named the Top Hotel for Food by the reader’s of Travel + Leisure Magazine—has firmly established a reputation as a place where world travelers, world leaders and world-weary celebrities can find out-of-this world atmosphere and cuisine. Once again, the Inn has been rated #1 in all categories with a near perfect score in the 2013 Washington DC Zagat Guide.
This temple of culinary masterworks is not found in some tony Upper East Side locale or the posh confines of Beverly Hills, but the rural hamlet of Little Washington, VA, population 158. It is a dream destination. In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains about ninety miles west of Washington, DC, the Inn is a world away from the hurry, noise and traffic (there are no traffic lights in Little Washington) of big city life.
O’Connell has run the Inn for 30 years, first opening it with then partner Reinhardt Lynch. They now boast 18 rooms and suites along with several houses which include bedrooms, bathrooms, and other special features. The restaurant itself, however, is clearly the crowning jewel of their endeavor.
O’Connell is a self-taught chef who studied the cookbooks of Julia Child and then simply followed his muse. The fare is simple yet sophisticated. His cooking could be called “eclectic regional American”—seared foie gras with country ham, beef medallions with local morels, delicately cooked soft shell crab when in season, and rhubarb pizza. Local flavor is a key in all of the Inn’s offerings. The menu emphasizes ingredients from area farmers and regional fisherman, and the Inn employs two full-time horticulturists to grow fresh herbs, lettuces and edible flowers.
The wine cellar comprises of more than 2,400 bottles from the world’s greatest regions of wine. In addition to wines from Rhone, Bordeaux, and California, etc., the award-winning list includes an entire page of wines produced by vineyards in Virginia itself.
The Inn is also home to Rose and Jobe, two incredibly indulged Dalmatians who come bounding out of the Inn as part of the welcoming committee whenever new guests arrive. Rose was given to O’Connell and Lynch as a gift from the staff just over a decade ago. Jobe was adopted from a rescue shelter after Rose’s first companion, DeSoto, passed away.
As stylish as the Inn itself, Rose sports a pearl collar which has become her trademark, while Jobe is jaunty attired in his signature bow-tie. The decked out dogs are becoming as famous as their celebrated owners. The kitchen staff wears Dalmatian print aprons and trousers. Overnight guests receive a treat from Rose at turndown—dog bone shaped biscotti, a small glass of port and a note from Rose with her paw print. The Inn’s gift shop sells the biscotti, along with “Rose’s Cookies” sets—dog shaped cookie-cutters and delectable Dalmatian-themed decorations. For its canine customers, the Inn also sells granola which can be made into a chunky version for a delicious dog treat. O’Connell says he has contemplated creating an entire line of gourmet dog food. For the moment, though, he is concentrating on human cuisine.
Friends and customers of the Inn often send gifts with Dalmatian motifs— from picture frames, to chairs, to bathrobes. “We really should open a Dalmatian museum with everything we have collected in our basement!” laughs the culinary master. The most unusual gift, he says, was a life-sized, battery operated Dalmatian lantern programmed to bark.
Rose and Jobe do partake in leftovers from O’Connell’s renowned kitchen. “Rose’s favorite dish is rabbit consume with tenderloin tips.” O’Connell says. “Jobe, however, gained around 18 pounds in a year, so we have him on a slimming diet of steamed chicken.”
Unlike those two lucky dogs, not all of us get to sample O’Connell’s delicious dishes. For the poor souls unable to make the jaunt to Little Washington, VA., O’Connell created a cookbook, The Inn at Little Washington: A Consuming Passion. Now everyone can try to reproduce Patrick O’Connell’s gourmet magic at home. Seeing Jobe and Rose strut their stuff, however, will require a visit.
The Inn at Little Washington is a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux hotel group. It is located at Middle and Main Streets in Washington, Virginia. For reservations for dinner or to stay at the Inn, call 540-675-3800.