WASHINGTON, Va. — Patrick O’Connell had a very good 2016. His beloved Inn at Little Washington was awarded two stars by the 116-year-old Michelin Guide, which officially put the inn on the international shortlist of great restaurants. New customers, including many from Asia, made the pilgrimage to the tiny Virginia town. Old friends came back to celebrate.
It could have been the capstone to a storied career. But O’Connell, 71, has no intention of retiring or even slowing down. He just announced elaborate plans for the inn’s 40th anniversary next year, including a huge benefit dinner at Mount Vernon, an alumni chefs’ reunion and another celebration in France.
After that, he wants to reach 50 years in business — an almost unheard-of feat for any elite American restaurant.
And he really wants a third Michelin star.
“My mother always accused me of not having a very good grasp on reality,” says O’Connell. “And I say it has served me well.”
The inn’s improbable history is well-known: O’Connell and his then-partner, Reinhardt Lynch, converted a garage into a restaurant in a historic village about an hour outside Washington. On opening night, Jan. 28, 1978, you could have dinner for $4.95 if you plowed through a blizzard to get there.
Glowing reviews led to word-of-mouth, and pretty soon the restaurant became the go-to spot for birthdays, engagements, weddings and other special occasions. Dinner for two now runs about $500, and the inn is booked months in advance.
That it has survived four decades is due not only to O’Connell’s obsessive attention to detail but also to the economics of American restaurants. It now costs an average of $1 million to open a top-level establishment, and most won’t survive five years.
New York’s Four Seasons, the birthplace of the power lunch, closed in 2016 after 57 years when the Seagram Building owners declined to renew its lease. Le Bernardin, a three-star restaurant in Manhattan, dodged a shutdown in 2011 when chef Eric Ripert negotiated a new 15-year lease.
Chefs who own their properties have a much better shot at surviving the challenges of a shifting economy and new competition. Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1971 after buying a dingy two-story apartment building in Berkeley, Calif. Thomas Keller bought the French Laundry in 1994, and the Napa Valley restaurant received three Michelin stars in 2007, a rating it still holds.
Even decades of popularity are no guarantee of ongoing success: Washington’s Restaurant Nora is ending its 38-year-run at the end of this month; owner Nora Pouillon’s attempts to sell the business have not attracted any buyers.
O’Connell and Lynch were both smart and lucky: Inspired by family-owned country inns in Europe, they rented the garage for $200 a month and bought it nine months later, settling in for the long haul.
When the couple split a decade ago, O’Connell, now widely known as “the pope of American haute cuisine,” borrowed $17 million to gain sole ownership. The gamble paid off, and the 40th anniversary is a huge deal in the food world. “Everybody in the industry is well aware of the rarity and the uniqueness of an American restaurant living four decades with a bright future,” he says.
For the actual anniversary in January, O’Connell is planning an intimate “family” dinner, then will host three big parties next year: a June 16 dinner for 350 on the lawn at Mount Vernon, where tables will sell for $25,000, with the proceeds going to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Guests, including O’Connell’s famous friends in the culinary world, will arrive on boats traveling down the Potomac, and the night will end with fireworks.
There will be an overnight reunion camp-out at the inn for all the restaurant’s alumni, with former chefs manning food booths. The final event will take place Sept. 30 at Vaux-le-Vicomte, the 17th-century chateau outside Paris that was the inspiration for Versailles Palace; proceeds will benefit a French historical association. A ticket package for both the Mount Vernon and the French dinner is in the works, although the details have not been finalized.
In honor of the anniversary, O’Connell is launching an eponymous foundation to fund culinary training for aspiring local chefs — one of which he was back when his parents tried to persuade him to enter a more prestigious profession.
The two Michelin stars were a great boost for O’Connell: When officials announced that they were coming to Washington last year, they said that the guide would include only restaurants in the city, but they made an exception for the inn. José Andrés’s Minibar and Aaron Silverman’s Pineapple and Pearls also received two stars.
When the inn opened, a Michelin rating wasn’t possible because the guide hadn’t yet expanded to the United States. But O’Connell traveled to Europe every year to visit three-stars and then tried to emulate what he’d learned.
“The old story was that it took three generations to get three stars: the first generation bought the property and set up a good, consistent restaurant,” he explains. “Then the son bought the fancy china and glassware and sent his son to work at the greatest places on earth. That son — the third generation — came home, married a beautiful blonde who worked in the dining room, and they got the third star. In America, things have to speed up a little bit, so we tried to do this in one generation.”
It took O’Connell several years to realize his vision: At first, he clashed with 156 town residents who were afraid that the inn would change the culture of the place. He now owns 20 town properties (most turned into the inn’s 24 guest rooms) and is responsible for virtually all the local tax revenue. The entire town is a destination, and its fortunes are inextricably intertwined with the inn.
Now O’Connell wants the third Michelin star — the ultimate prize for great chefs. “We are going for a third every day, every plate,” he says.
He hopes to earn it within the next 10 years and plans to be at the helm for as long as it takes. He cites his inspirations: chefs Paul Bocuse (91), Michel Guérard (84 ), and the late François Haeringer, who worked in the kitchen until his death in 2010 at age 91. “It’s not a profession, it’s a lifestyle,” he says. “It challenges all your sensibilities and talents.”
But the dangers of a one-man show, regardless of how acclaimed, are real: It’s rare for any great restaurant to lose its chef and continue to thrive. In the past decade, O’Connell says, he’s given more decisions to his executive team, teaching them to meet his exacting standards. “You have to think as I think, you have to see as I see, and you have to be driven the same way,” he tells them. “This is a never-never land. You can live happily ever after. But you have to throw your body at it, work very hard and find your ultimate potential.”
And he has begun an “incremental and very graceful” succession plan. “I certainly would not have sacrificed 50 years of my life to create something that would be extinguished on my passing,” he says.
For now, there’s the renovation of the corner post office into a patisserie and sidewalk cafe, a memoir, and — best of all — a new dog.
In the inn’s early years, two pet Dalmatians escorted guests to the dining room. (The cook’s pants are a spotted print fabric in their honor.) There were no dogs for almost a decade — until last month, when the staff ambushed the chef with Luray, a rescue dog from southern Virginia. It was love at first wag, and now the 3-year-old is being trained to follow in the pawprints of his predecessors.
So no plans for O’Connell to take it down a notch — in any sense of the word.
“I said to a friend, ‘I’m just warming up. Do you think I’m a late bloomer?’ ” he says. “And he said, ‘No, you’re a perennial.’ ”