This review appears in The Washington Post’s 2017 Fall Dining Guide as No. 1 on Tom’s Top 10.
1. Inn at Little Washington
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but there’s a place 90 minutes or so from “The Swamp” that started out as a gas station and morphed into a dining attraction whose chef has been hailed as the pope of American cuisine. Yesterday’s food news? Hardly. If anything, the sumptuous Inn at Little Washington by chef/author/entertainer Patrick O’Connell excels at exceeding guests’ expectations from year to year, and this is coming from a customer who has been going there since he had a $400 credit limit on his MasterCard. Over the summer, O’Connell threw a bone to well-heeled food fanciers: dinner for two in his swoon-worthy, copper-clad kitchen for $1,300, plus afternoon tea, plus overnight accommodations, plus a full breakfast the next day. (No, they don’t spoon-feed you, too. But still.) Considering that dinner alone runs about $300 per person, I leapt at the chance to enjoy the whole gold-dipped enchilada.
Three separate menus showcase the revered inn’s classics, seasonal creations and vegetarian selections, but diners are welcome to mix and match as they please to come up with a six-or-so-course extravaganza. Not to be missed from the respective lists: a fan of lamb carpaccio with tangy Caesar salad ice cream; a silken custard of foie gras, with foie gras garnish; and house-made bucatini with chanterelles and tiny balls of peach and tomatoes — pure summer in every bite. Before all that, though, there are a flurry of fine snacks (tempura squash blossoms with a Vietnamese dipping sauce) and some Moroccan-style rinsing of the hands at the table.
“People say the Inn is dinner and a show,” says a server. It’s a line I’ve heard a dozen times before here but never tire of receiving, because the shtick is accompanied by a movie box of popcorn sprinkled with truffle shavings. Water is poured into a chalice. (From a palace? Looks like it.)
A chocolate sphere takes some work to tackle, but with the help of a tiny gold hammer I shatter the globe to find inside a scoop of breezy mint ice cream, over which another server pours hot chocolate sauce.
Staying overnight reveals the Inn to be just as adept at lodging as at feeding guests. The plush drapes block out sunlight until you pull them apart, and Bulgari and heated floors make bathroom breaks most pleasant. Breakfast the next morning comes with a jam-and-jelly menu, wouldn’t you know, and adorable miniature versions of a.m. classics. “Be right back with your swine!” a server says as he goes off to get some bacon. CliffsNotes version: It’s hard to go back to reality after a night at the Inn, which serves more last-meal possibilities — plump veal sweetbreads with peaches, a vegetable antipasti arranged as a conga line on its plate, Maine lobster staged with corn salsa, panna cotta and baby cobs — than any restaurant I know. New to the cast this year is a mascot, a Dalmatian being groomed to greet guests in the foyer. (Say hello to Luray, named for the nearby caverns.)
Did I mention the Inn is poised to turn 40 next year? Do you know of any other dining destination in the world that old, that delicious, that fun and that life-affirming? I didn’t think so. A round of applause, then, for the greatest showman of them all. You’re No. 1, Mr. O’Connell.
Inn at Little Washington: 309 Middle St., Washington, Va. 540-675-3800. theinnatlittlewashington.com.
Prices: Prix fixe $218.
Sound check: 71 decibels / Must speak with raised voice
The Top 10:
The following review appeared in The Washington Post’s 2016 Fall Dining Guide as No. 7 on Tom’s Top 10.
The biggest challenge for fine-dining purveyors these days? Exquisite food and service aren’t enough, says Patrick O’Connell, the country’s wittiest innkeeper. “People want to be astonished!” Thirty-eight years after his dreamy dining destination opened within view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, “the Inn” still manages to coax sighs and smiles from repeat guests. One of three menus celebrates the “here and now” with foie gras mousse and sauternes gelee in (how rich!) a golden egg. Another list, “The Good Earth,” makes a world-class “meatloaf” out of local chanterelles. And no matter how many times I’ve sampled it, herbed lamb carpaccio with Caesar salad ice cream, among several “enduring classics,” tastes like falling in love for the first time. Prepare to eat too much bread, drink too much wine and wish you had the work of the Inn’s pastry chef for all enchanted evenings going forward. A great way to gauge a restaurant is to see how it handles sticky situations, as when a certain food critic’s credit card was declined — no thanks to a fraud alert I never got from MasterCard until after I got home. “The same thing happened to the president of” a U.S. ally, one of the Inn’s suave stage managers assured me.
The 2016 Top 10:
The following review appeared in The Washington Post’s 2015 Fall Dining Guide. as No. 5 on Tom’s top 10.
The Inn thinks of everything. Personalized menus? Check. Toothbrushes in the restrooms? You’re welcome. A 1949 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith parked out front, just in case a hotel guest wants to take a spin around the block? Vintage fun. When it comes to pulling out all the stops, few restaurants in the country can match the whimsy and excess of the dining destination conceived and nurtured by chef-owner Patrick O’Connell.
The flotilla of hors d’oeuvres alone threatens to fill me up even as I dispatch every marvelous crumb. Among the clever snacks is a tiny corn ice cream sandwich rolled in local corn. Diners select from among three menus, each $208 (and one vegetarian), but are free to mix and match courses as they wish.
Last-meal fantasies are spun from roseate petals of lamb carpaccio paired with ice cream that suggests Caesar salad, labeled on the menu as an “enduring classic,” and crisp, bourbon-kissed veal sweetbreads with silken pappardelle that becomes a dish “of the moment” in August with a flourish of summery peaches. A bouquet of summer squash with bright lemon ricotta, representing a category called “the good earth,” reveals a kitchen that treats vegetables like gold and harvests a considerable amount of its riches from its own gardens and hives.
The pomp and circumstance of an evening in the most cushioned and gilded dining rooms of my acquaintance come with sides of levity. As many times as I’ve watched the guy with the cheese trolley cut up diners with his hee-haw jokes (“That’s a gouda one”), I still like to catch his routine involving a little cow on wheels. Far from resting on its considerable praise, the Inn seeks to raise the bar from year to year: Fresh back from Cuba, O’Connell intends to replicate for New Year’s Eve a memory of Havana showgirls descending a three-story staircase wearing lit chandeliers on their heads.
Flawless? Well, the bartender was sorry he didn’t have mezcal for a margarita on a hot summer’s day. I could almost hear O’Connell, a theater major in college, whisper, “Don’t let’s ask for the moon, Tom. We have the stars.”