Nestled in the Virginia countryside under the watchful eye of the Blue Ridge Mountains, The Inn at Little Washington endures as one of America’s finest restaurants. For nearly four decades, gourmands from around the globe have been making pilgrimages to the charming epicurean escape, which recently earned two Michelin stars and has five James Beard Awards on its mantle, along with numerous other accolades.
Chef-owner Patrick O’Connell enchants every sense with impeccably executed, French- accented haute cuisine presented with dashes of mischief and whimsy. Eating at the Inn isn’t just about enjoying a meal – it’s a once in a lifetime tour de force never to be forgotten. But what is the story behind the experience? To pull back the curtain and see how the wizardry works, I spoke with O’Connell, along with Bob Fasce, who is now The Inn’s director of development, and table captain Michael O’Heir.
Patrick O’Connell: My first job was in a restaurant. It was love at first sight. I loved the fact you didn’t have to be normal. It fact, it helped if you weren’t. It was a subculture. Like theater people, restaurant people marched to their own beat. They don’t do anything the way regular people do, who have weekends off to wash the car and mow the grass and all those boring things. My father worked for the government his entire life. It seemed to me – as a child, from afar – that it was numbingly boring. That wasn’t the life I hoped for.
When I was 20, I went to Europe with a EuroRail pass and traveled for a year. As soon as I got there, I realized that cooking was an art form and, if approached from that perspective, it could satisfy all my inner needs. When I returned, I bought a large farm on the line between Madison and Rappahannock counties and opened a catering business.
Ultimately, I bought a garage in Little Washington, which had a basket store on one side. It had been a candidate for demolition, but no one had the money to tear it down. We opened The Inn at Little Washington on January 28, 1978, and served 70 people the opening night.
Originally it was so primitive. I would cook and serve. We had 50 seats and there was no liquor license because the county was dry. But the Washington newspapers picked up on the novelty and bizarreness of a place of this caliber in the middle of nowhere.
After the first year in business, we shut down the restaurant for the month of January to take the staff to Europe. It was the best thing we ever did. It was to measure ourselves against the best. That’s what I always tell young people. It doesn’t matter what you want to do. If you want to open a sandwich shop and sell Reubens, find out who has the best Reuben in the whole world, measure what you’re doing against that, and aim for that. Don’t aim for simply the best in your town.
Bob Fasce: I started at the beginning of 1990. I had graduated from the CIA and was looking for a job. My friend was trying out to work at the Inn and I knew I was as good as him, so I threw my name in that hat. The night before my job interview, I sat on the steps of the post office across the street, just staring at the Inn, thinking, ‘I can’t believe that I am freaking here.’ I remember the kitchen was busy and professional. I’d never seen food go out as meticulously and as consistently. It was everything I thought a high-end restaurant should be. The test went well and then Patrick asked, ‘How much do I need to pay you?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ He started laughing. He ultimately paid me around seven bucks an hour – near nothing. I got my wish.
Michael O’Heir: My story begins twenty-four years ago with my father, Neil, who applied for a job at the Inn after he had just married my mother. I’m the oldest of his five sons. As of this past Christmas Day, all five of us have worked here. When I was 18-years-old, my father invited me to work at the Inn. There’s not a title for what I was doing; I was in the back polishing glasses. The first day was imposing. There’s a lot of information being thrown at you. You’re expected to learn quickly, but everyone is helpful.
Fasce: A lot of celebrities come through, but I’m not a starstruck guy. However, when Vice President Gore visited, that was amazing. It doesn’t really matter who is dining with us because all the food goes out the same.
O’Connell: Early on, Paul Newman dined with us. I was going to go to Hawaii and had gotten as far as California when I got a call. We had a Polish general manager, and he said in his thick accent, ‘How soon you can be home? Took reservation for Paul Newman’s 60th birthday with friends.’ I turned right around.
A few years later during the first Clinton administration, I was driving home in sleeting rain and I got a phone call, ‘Thank god we caught you. Barbara Streisand is coming for lunch tomorrow.’ I said, ‘That’s a good one.’ Then they told me they were serious and I blew up, ‘Who let that happen? Did you tell her we’re not open for lunch?’ My staffer said, ‘We tried, but it was President Clinton who called for her and when we told him we weren’t open for lunch, he said ‘So much the better.’’
O’Heir: No matter who is dining with us, we follow chef’s ‘Five Stages of Dining’ based on Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ ‘Five Stages of Grief.’ The first stage is anticipation. You’ve made the reservation and you’re excited. You’re looking forward to your meal. The next stage is trepidation. You get a little nervous. Is the restaurant going to be snooty? Will I know which silverware is appropriate to use? The third stage is inspection. That’s after you’ve sat down, you’re a little more relaxed, you’ve had a few sips of wine or a cocktail and you’re enjoying the experience. Fourth is fulfillment, when you sit back, you’re satiated at the end of the meal, and you’re smiling and happy. And then there’s the fifth and final evaluation stage when you’re driving home, talking to your significant other, and asking, ‘Was it worth it? Would we go back?’ We hope the answer is ‘Absolutely yes.’
From a service standpoint, this helps you understand what the guests are going through when they sit down. Our goal is to push them through the trepidation stage as quickly as we can. The first amuse bouche is meant to be eaten with your fingers, so when I deliver them, I say, ‘It’s finger food. Don’t be shy.’ That helps them relax. Rather than making guests feel like they’re coming to one of the best fine dining restaurants in the States, we want to make them feel like they’re coming to Patrick’s home for dinner. They can sit back and loosen their tie.
O’Connell: We are always working to refine the experience. It’s a struggle balancing the menu with classic dishes and new ones. If you take a classic dish off the menu, people demand to have it back or they feign disappointment. Yet the critics who are coming want to see new, new, new — or else they think you’re not working. So we created three menus: our Enduring Classics highlights and features the dishes that even regulars return for over and over, then we have a menu each day called Here and Now, and a third menu highlights offerings for vegetarians.
The minute you’re not breathing life into your restaurant, it goes flat. So you have to be at one with it and it has to reflect who you are and your own evolution. I had a writing teacher in college tell me, ‘If you’re not embarrassed by what you wrote last year, you’re not progressing.’ So we are mortified by what we did last year. And that’s a good thing.
Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer and the author of several books, including Freak Show Without A Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell and Instagram @nevinmartell.
Photo credit: Gordon Beall (interior and exterior); all photos courtesy of The Inn at Little Washington.