When it comes to escaping Washington D.C., the opportunities seem endless, and more often than not, all roads lead to delicious sips, bites and bucolic views. In May, following one of these routes landed me at the doorstep of Inn at Little Washington, a truly spectacular place for celebrating my 36th birthday.
Nothing about Inn at Little Washington is a secret. Being the only 3-Michelin star restaurant around Washington, D.C., it has received one too many accolades and its praises have been sung by many of world’s esteemed food critics and gourmands in the past 40+ years of its operation. Before I dive deeper into this fantastic dining experience, however, let me tell you briefly about the town itself.
Virginia’s Washington has a modest population of 135 and is tucked away in Rappahannock County on the shoulder of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was founded in 1769 and claims to be the only community named for George Washington before he became a general and the first President of the United States.
Currently, the life of this little town is largely linked to the James Beard Award–winning Patrick O’Connell, chef and owner of Inn at Little Washington as well as 20 other properties here. Altogether, they form a campus: 23 lavishly decorated guest rooms and cottages, a dining room, a ballroom and shops. In addition, there are art galleries, sophisticated shops and theatres to visit. The town is very conveniently located close to Shenandoah’s Skyline Drive, Luray Caverns and another little historic town Sperryville. I particularly enjoyed the afternoon stroll along the Perimeter Path, a ¾ mile loop that meanders past the chickens, sheep and their guardian llama, Francesca.
In terms of available lodging, the Inn is not your only option here. While our initial plan was to stay there, it was fully booked for our travel dates. Thankfully we didn’t have to look too far because White Moose Inn is literally within 2-min walk. Dating back to 1830s, the inn is fully refurbished and reminded me of a mountain home, cozy and inviting yet modern and luxurious. The service was personalized and truly outstanding, as was the comfort of our room – spacious and bright, with a contemporary aesthetic. See the full review in my Instagram post below. Other affordable and comfortable places to stay near Inn at Little Washington include Gay Street Inn, Middleton Inn, Foster Harris House and LeFay Cottage at Little Washington.
The restaurant itself was opened in 1978 by chef Patrick O’Connell and his business partner at the time Reinhardt Lynch. It became an instant success, and still maintains the title of the only three-star restaurant in the Nation’s Capital. The restaurant also earned a Green Star this year, awarded for its seriously deep commitment to sustainability. The Inn has been serving regional American cuisine utilizing indigenous products from local farmers, ranchers, and the Inn’s own garden for 43 years.
Modeled on the inns of France and filled with dramatic furnishings, the decor is equal parts eccentric, whimsical, over-the-top, elegant and lavish. Since we visited while the COVID-19 50 percent maximum occupancy rule was still in place, we got to witness the chef’s unconventional solution to this conundrum – placing mannequins at every other table outfitted in 1940s-inspired costumes provided by the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia.
You can tell that chef’s perfectionism and passion are reflected onto every single detail at The Inn, from the decor and service to the menu itself. Dining here is most definitely a sui generis experience and reminded me of a meticulously rehearsed theatrical performance in which you play the star role. From customized menus with our names on it to uber attentive servers, we most definitely felt cosseted like royals for the night.
Our evening started at the plush main living room where we enjoyed cocktails and bar snacks. We were then escorted to our table and the feast began. There are actually two bills of fare: the Gastronaut’s Menu and The Good Earth, featuring omnivorous and vegetarian choices respectively. We both opted for the former.
Don’t expect crazy modern cooking techniques that you’d see at similar D.C. restaurants like Pineapple and Pearls or Minibar by José Andrés. Instead, you’ll savor a French-inflected classic execution which reminded me of dinners at Guy Savoy and Joel Robuchon. Every dish in the 8-course dinner is a balanced and nuanced show-stopper, but it also fits cohesively into the progressive tasting menu which takes you on a culinary journey and tells a story of local farmers and purveyors.
The dinner starts with a couple of amuse-bouches and is later studded with ingredients like foie gras and black truffle. Picking favorites is hard, but the highlights included a tuna and foie gras confit, grilled kingfish and the pan-seared duck breast served alongside seared foie gras. I’d also want to highlight the excellent wine pairing offered alongside the dinner which should not be skipped. The Inn’s award-winning wine cellar includes the finest offerings from Bordeaux, Burgundy, California and Virginia – a total of about 14,000 bottles.
The cheese course (a substitute for the dessert course) is proffered to guests from the back of a large plastic cow trolley called Faira, which is hefted from table to table. In the end, you are also gifted with a super cute little paper house filled with tiny cookies and chocolates to take home.
I won’t even go into the details of how much this lavish experience costs. It is not cheap yet it is oh so worth it if you’re looking to celebrate a special occasion. Book well in advance because it is a very popular destination. Mind a formal dress code, this is the place to go all out and dress up. Hope this was a helpful overview and will inspire you to visit some time!
Stay inspired, my beautiful friends!
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