A thought occurred to Patrick O'Connell the morning after the Inn at Little Washington served its maiden dinner, for $4.95 on Jan. 28, 1978, in tiny Washington, Va.
"Geez, I think we have to do this again!" the chef recently recalled — 40 years, five James Beard awards, two Michelin stars and countless tins of sin (caviar-carpeted crab) after the fact. Over the decades, the brand has grown from an auto garage to occupy 21 buildings in the hamlet. The inn, decorated by a British stage-set designer, has also fed a host of luminaries, including "three queens and a king," O'Connell says of the inn, my No. 1 favorite restaurant in last year's fall dining guide. (For crown counters, the royal guests were the queens of England, Jordan and Spain and the king of Spain.)
Leave it to the over-the-top dining destination, whose debut menu trumpeted "A World Premiere Grand Opening," to toast its anniversary with four celebrations, starting Jan. 28, with a "friends and family" dinner to which anyone is welcome who can pony up $375, not including tax or tip. The event, nearly sold out as of press time on Monday, will start with horse-drawn carriage rides around town and Dom Pérignon and Petrossian caviar — "all we can eat and drink of their products," promises the host — served in the inn's Tavern, where George Washington is said to have danced. O'Connell's "pre-tweezer" menu will feature some of the earliest dishes he served, including a crab-and-spinach timbale and foie gras with black-eyed-pea vinaigrette, plus a trio of the most popular desserts from the restaurant's four decades.
Never one to take himself too seriously, O'Connell is searching for a Marilyn Monroe to coo "Happy Birthday" when the main cake is presented.
On June 16, O'Connell will hold a fundraiser for his new charity on the lawn at Mount Vernon, the co-beneficiary of proceeds from a garden party that will re-create the experience of dining at the table of George Washington, who laid out the streets of "Little" Washington as a young surveyor. (The Patrick O'Connell Foundation supports culinary arts and education, along with historic preservation.)
Historians are helping curate the dinner for 350 attendees, who will dine inside antique-looking tents and enjoy some of the fruits of Mount Vernon's 250-year-old-plus gardens, including turnips and radishes, but not tomatoes, which were considered more ornamental than edible way back when. There won't be duck, either; Washington's dental issues meant he preferred soft foods — as in scallops garnished with black truffles, one of the dinner's expected courses.
The event, with French Ambassador Gerard Araud serving as honorary chair and culinary pioneers including Thomas Keller and Alice Waters among the invitees, will conclude with cherry pie made with fruit from the inn's orchard and fireworks over the Potomac River. Tables for 10 cost $18,750; the $2,500 price for an individual ticket includes a VIP reception and a seat at a table with one of the culinary pioneers in attendance.
Next, a "family reunion" involving former employees of the inn is planned for Sept. 2, when O'Connell will host Innstock, a play on Woodstock, which the chef attended in 1969. (His review of the music festival in Bethel, N.Y., was mixed: "It looked like a mess. We got bored and left.") The streets surrounding the inn will be closed to accommodate 30 chefs and food stations. In keeping with the throwback theme, there will be wristbands, bonfires, a Janis Joplin look- and sound-alike contest and a tent city erected on a "Field of Dreams," which is how O'Connell refers to the 20-acre meadow behind the inn's tavern. "Something for everyone," imagines O'Connell, whose young foundation will benefit from sales. Residents of Washington, Va., will be admitted free of charge; the rest of us will pay $250 to eat and drink all we want, concert included.
The chef is saving the most extravagant and exclusive celebration for last. A longtime Francophile, O'Connell is throwing a candlelit dinner party on Sept. 30 at Vaux-le-Vicomte, a 17th- century chateau outside Paris and the site of a party for Louis XIV in 1661. (Also the backdrop for 10 films, including 1979's "Moonraker" and 1998's "The Man in the Iron Mask.") One hundred fifty guests will dine under a 2 ½ -story rotunda, on a menu based on what Louis XIV might have eaten, created with input from O'Connell. The tab per person: $3,000, or about 10 times the price of my last dinner with wine, tax and tip at the Inn at Little Washington.
The chef attributes his fabled establishment's long reign to seeing everything through the eyes of the people he serves. "My mantra: This is a very simple business," says the chef. "Just be the guest."
To purchase tickets, call 202-459-0853 or email email@example.com.