Maryland crab and watermelon gazpacho at Three Blacksmiths in Sperryville, Va. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)
Food critic

As much as John and Diane MacPherson enjoyed running the Foster Harris House in Washington, Va., after 13 years of hosting epicurean bike tours, feeding guests both breakfast and dinner, the couple decided they wanted more flexibility in their lives. Last year, they sold their business and spent two months in Europe, where they collected ideas for their true passion: a restaurant — hold the beds, the bikes and the lack of privacy.

Their ideal came to life in June, with the opening of Three Blacksmiths in Sperryville. The restaurant, warm in wood and illuminated with candles, serves a mere 16 guests at a single 7 p.m. seating Thursday through Saturday. The area’s small talent pool explains the limited audience and dates. “We didn’t want to be in the business of constantly hiring and training,” says Diane MacPherson. But more than that, “we love being in touch with our customers.”  

Sure enough, John, the self-taught head chef, and his wife, the smile at the entrance, take turns delivering the five-course dinner along with sous-chefs Ethan Taylor and Connor Hartman, the owners’ only employees. The reality that they don’t have a second seating means diners get to do more than hear a quick food description. And the proximity of the open kitchen, distinguished with a wood hearth, to the handful of tables only increases the intimacy.

Seating at the restaurant is capped at 16 with a single 7 p.m. seating. The restaurant, which sources its food locally, is only open three nights a week. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

“Every table is a chef’s table,” says my companion, scraping a sauce of saffron-colored coconut milk from a bowl containing a single buttery scallop and shards of rice cracker. The crisp garnish is made with the rice that sticks to the bottom of the pan, John MacPherson tells us. A second course, called Soup ’n Salad, gathers cherry tomatoes on a mound of lemon ricotta set in refreshing gazpacho. Thin slices of house-baked rye, veined with pecan and sunflower seeds, are presented atop a little dish of stones. “They’re local, too,” jokes the chef, nodding in the direction of the nearby Thornton River from which he retrieved (and washed) them. The regular butter is superb; even better is the fat infused with honey and basil.

Pasta follows: piegatelle folded over itself, surrounded by funghi both fleshy (maitake mushrooms) and aromatic (summer truffles) in a broth infused with porcinis. Brick House Gamay Noir from Oregon is Ginger Rogers to the pasta’s Fred Astaire: a starry match, and part of the optional $70 wine pairing. There’s no bar, per se, although the staff can make a martini or Manhattan if someone asks.

The portions are sensible. When a length of duck breast is set down, you have room to enjoy it. Seared to a crackle on the grill, the duck comes with escorts of toasted farro, chard braised in beer, snap peas for color and a blackberry sauce that veers from sweet to sour: as perfect a concert as I’ve witnessed this summer. Tres leches cake, its texture reminiscent of angel food, is served as bite-size pieces with grill-kissed nectarines and ice cream that gets its smokiness from slivers of wood that have been singed and steeped in milk.

Diver scallop on saffron coconut milk. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

House-made pasta with mushrooms. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

Consider all of this a tease, by the way: The chef says he changes the menu “a lot every week,” completely every three weeks. If there’s a thread from meal to meal, I’m guessing it’s plates that encourage regular drop-ins.

Locals might remember the location as Rae’s Place, which was decorated with faux palm trees and bamboo. John MacPherson and Taylor replaced all that with quiet sophistication in the form of maple walls, tables from reclaimed barn wood and floors in a veneer of mahogany. Without a big budget, the owners managed to create a dreamy environment inspired by bits and pieces of their travels to London, Slovenia, Switzerland, France and Italy. The reference to three blacksmiths comes from a book Diane MacPherson read, “Beyond the Rim: From Slavery to Redemption in Rappahannock” by James D. Russell. In it, the author describes a long-ago Sperryville, bustling enough to employ a trio of blacksmiths.

Little touches — pools of space between tables, sheepskin stools for purses, miniature anvils with your party’s name written on it — make big impressions. Because you’ve paid in advance for the pleasure, there’s no bill. Some guests linger over the wine in their glass, or make friends of people who only hours ago had been strangers. Ultimately, Three Blacksmiths feels like the dinner party you don’t want to leave. Regretfully, you do, with an apt treat of charcoal meringue in a small pouch.

“It’s supposed to be good for you,” Diane says. She’s referencing the parting gift, but she might just as well be talking about Three Blacksmiths.

20 Main St., Sperryville, Va. 540-987-5105. Multicourse tasting menu, $99 per person; optional wine pairings, $70.