The first indication that Tuesday was no ordinary night at the Inn at Little Washington was the luminarias lighting both sides of Middle Street. The second was the price tag: $1,978 per couple for a 10-course, seven-wine, four-hour meal at the award-winning restaurant. The third festive touch came from "Little Washington" himself -- a little person costumed as the first president, enthusiastically greeting each of the 84 dinner guests.

The occasion was the 25th anniversary of the acclaimed restaurant, which went from a converted garage in this tiny Virginia town to one of the country's gourmet meccas. Owners Patrick O'Connell and Reinhardt Lynch celebrated the inn's silver anniversary Tuesday and last night with two gala dinner benefits. The price of admission was based on the restaurant's opening date (Jan. 28, 1978) and raised more than $100,000 for Share Our Strength, the Washington-based anti-hunger organization.

Critics have run out of superlatives for the restaurant's food, service, decor. We'll confine ourselves to the review included on the dinner invitation, which calls it the "gastronomic equivalent of sex."

Well, well. Shortly before the party began, we found O'Connell in the kitchen wearing a white chef's coat and silver lame{acute} pants, sipping Campari and grinning madly. "Truly, anyone could do it," he said modestly. "You have to be willing to make the degree of sacrifice you have to -- which is total."

It helps, of course, that both O'Connell and Lynch are perfectionists. No detail is too small, no bread crumb out of place. Ordinarily this would be wildly annoying and potentially self-destructive, but it's a plus in the notoriously demanding restaurant business, and here it's leavened by great style and wit.

"You can make all your neuroses make sense," O'Connell explained, before dashing off to instruct the violinist how to stand on the sink.

Cocktails were held in the kitchen, which had been scrubbed and buffed to perfection. The musicians, perched up on the counters, played as the fireplace crackled and servers passed champagne and blini with caviar. Just when everyone was all warm and chatty, a giant gong clanged. "Ladies and gentlemen!" shouted Little Washington. "Dinner is served."

There were short, charming speeches by the owners and emcee Lynda Carter, and then the words everyone had been waiting for: "Let's eat!" ordered O'Connell.

The menu was designed as a retrospective spanning the restaurant's history, and noted the year each course was first served: Sorrel Jelly With Osetra Caviar and Lemon Cream (2002), Oyster on the Half Shell Glazed With Champagne Sauce (1980), Sweet Red Bell Pepper Soup With Sambuca Cream (1978).

The restaurant opened five years after O'Connell and Lynch fled Washington, D.C., for the country charms of the Blue Ridge foothills. The twenty-somethings had no money, no contacts, no real plan. Then fate stepped in in the person of conservative commentator James Kilpatrick, who had a country home and grass that needed mowing. Guess which bedraggled pair he hired for the job?

"Hippies!" Kilpatrick thundered Tuesday night. "I mean hippies!"

It's fun to see a tough old guy like Kilpatrick get mushy, but that's exactly what happened as he shared the rest of the story. First they mowed the lawn, then catered a dessert for his wife, then a lunch, and word got around . . . anyway, the catering duo finally decided to try their own restaurant, and opened in an old garage with an outhouse and a staff of three (but no liquor license).

Opening night's dinner tab: $10.

By 1988, the Inn at Little Washington had added guest rooms and collected dozens of domestic and international awards. "We modeled ourselves after the great inns of Europe," said Lynch, who's the practical, financial side of the team.

"We're the special-occasion restaurant," he said -- and it's true. Birthdays, anniversaries, weddings (Alan Greenspan and Andrea Mitchell tied the knot here, as did anniversary gala chairwoman Catherine Reynolds and her husband, Wayne.) All at special-occasion prices (the prix fixe dinners run $108 to $148 per person, plus wine and tip).

The inn brings in about 80 percent of the village's tax revenues, which makes for some lively town meetings. (See Politics, Local.)

But food is so much more fun than sewage systems, so we turned to the fourth course: Black Truffle Pizza With Fontina Cheese and Virginia Country Ham (1985). The servers delivered this in cardboard take-out boxes, which were opened to reveal a little slice of heaven.

"This is the best pizza ever," declared Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser.

A debate at his table broke out. This was only the fourth of 10 courses. Should one eat just a few bites and save room for the rest?

"If it's the Best Pizza Ever, you finish it," Kaiser decided. Share Our Strength founder Billy Shore nodded in agreement.

Wayne Reynolds scanned the remaining courses on the menu. "But what happens if the lobster is the Best Lobster Ever?" he asked, then answered his own question. "You enjoy yourself. What are you going to do -- wait another 25 years?"

So no leftovers from the Fricassee of Maine Lobster With Potato Gnocchi and Curried Walnuts (2000). Or the Truffle-Dusted Maine Diver's Scallop on Cauliflower Puree (1998). And certainly not the Lemon Verbena Sorbet With Homemade Limoncello (2000).

At this point, we made an honest effort to determine the total number of calories for the meal.

"Calories?" O'Connell looked bemused. "Oh, that stuff is so scientific."

The restaurant is renowned for using local ingredients, and has created a network of boutique farmers and suppliers in Rappahannock County and beyond. So there were letters of praise from Gov. Mark Warner, Mayor Anthony Williams and Andrea Mitchell. John Rosson, the critic who wrote the restaurant's first glowing review for the Evening Star back in 1978, told the audience of the huge economic and gastronomic impact the inn has had on the area.

"It inspired its own region to take up the banner," Rosson said, citing other restaurants, inns and vineyards. "Don't worry about the Dow or Nasdaq," he said. "We've got O'Connell and Lynch."

Course 8 emerged: Pecan-Crusted Barbecued Lamb Loin With Black-Eyed Peas and Sweet Potato Crispies (1982). "I'm slowing down," Kaiser admitted. Next: Crostini of Warm Vacherin Cheese With Pomegranate Seeds and Pomegranate Molasses (2003).

But then . . . dessert.

Not just any dessert, mind you. Not even just a special-occasion dessert. No, this was a Silver Jubilee dessert: Lilliputian Anniversary Cake (2001).

This would be a spun-sugar dome with a sugar "25" that lifted to reveal a chocolate-covered pistachio ice cream cake wrapped in marzipan ribbons cut in a pasta machine, then painted gold.

"Now, that . . . I could eat a second one," said Shore, looking the slightest bit guiltly at his empty plate.

Others were reluctant, however, to name a favorite course. "That's like asking who your favorite child is," Catherine Reynolds said.

Okay, okay. Perhaps, once again, Mae West had it exactly right: "Sometimes too much of a good thing can be . . . wonderful."

Catherine Reynolds and Lynda Carter drank to a quarter-century of fine dining as Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser looked on in the kitchen.Inn at Little Washington owners Patrick O'Connell and Reinhardt Lynch open a present (pillows) from longtime friend and interior designer Joyce Evans. At right, O'Connell holds mom Gwendolyn's hand while John Rosson holds her elbow; fellow diners included Doral Cooper and James K. Kilpatrick.