John M. Rosson, who as restaurant critic at the Washington Evening Star wrote one of the first rave reviews for the Inn at Little Washington, a rural Virginia restaurant that soon became widely known as one of the country’s finest, died Dec. 7 at the Baltimore Washington Medical Center in Glen Burnie, Md. He was 86.

He had end-stage dementia and coronary artery disease, said a niece, Rita Rosson.

From 1961 until the Star folded in 1981, Mr. Rosson wrote a column titled “Dining Out.” Phyllis C. Richman, the former Washington Post restaurant reviewer, once called Mr. Rosson “the Southern gentleman of Washington critics [who] contributed particular warmth and humanity to the reviewing process.

“Rosson,” she added, “discovered innumerable family-run restaurants, he encouraged countless chefs with his understanding, he knew more local lore and history than anyone will ever again, and he played a strong hand in turning this town from a gastronomic backwater to a thriving environment for more than 50 cuisines.”

Mr. Rosson reviewed the Inn at Little Washington, in the Rappahannock County town of Washington, four months after the restaurant’s debut. He called the experience “a tour de force” and “one of the finest restaurants in a 150-mile radius.” It helped make the owners, Patrick O’Connell and Reinhardt Lynch, culinary celebrities.

John MacNair Rosson was born in Coopersburg, Pa., and he grew up in Culpeper, Va. He was a 1951 journalism graduate of the University of Maryland, where he served as managing editor of the school newspaper. He was a Navy veteran of World War II.

Mr. Rosson, a Washington resident, joined the Evening Star as a police reporter in 1953. During his 28-year career at the Evening Star, he held many titles, including education reporter, editor of the weekly teen section and photo editor.

He joined the newly formed Washington Times as a food columnist in 1982 and became the food editor before retiring in 1990.

He published dining guides including “It’s Fun to Eat Out!” (1976). He judged Miss Maryland and Miss District of Columbia pageants.

His partner of 50 years, retired Army Capt. Malcolm McEwen Semple, died in 1999. He had no immediate survivors.

— Megan McDonough