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The Inn at Little Washington earns its third Michelin star, a first for the D.C. region

The Washington Post joins Patrick O'Connell as the chef and owner waits to hear if the Inn at Little Washington will receive its coveted third Michelin star. (Video: Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post)

There’s an old French adage about the Michelin Guide, the famed little red restaurant rating book: “It takes three generations to get three stars,” the guide’s top rating. It used to be that top European restaurants would be handed down through families, each descendant improving on his father’s work.

In the case of chef Patrick O’Connell of the Inn at Little Washington, it took only three years to get three stars. The Michelin Guide announced Thursday that it added a coveted third star to the Inn’s previous designation, making it the first restaurant in the Washington area to earn three stars.

“That a kid from South Capitol Street, via Clinton, Maryland, who worked in a Mr. H hamburgers … can teach himself to cook and measure his progress every year against the greatest restaurants in the world, realizing that if he kept at it and [was] committed and willing to sacrifice, [he] could make an achievement like this, it’s like being in the midst of a fairy tale,” O’Connell said.

Review: More magical than ever, the Inn at Little Washington reigns

José Andrés’s Minibar and Aaron Silverman’s Pineapple and Pearls kept their two-star ratings. There were two new additions to the one-star list: Chef Ryan Ratino’s Bresca and Robert Wiedmaier’s Siren, the latter with a kitchen led by executive chef and partner Brian McBride. They are the first Michelin stars for all three chefs. Bresca and Siren joined the previous list of one-star restaurants, all of which maintained their stars: Komi, Métier, Blue Duck Tavern, the Dabney, Fiola, Kinship, Masseria, Plume, Rose’s Luxury, Sushi Taro and Tail Up Goat.

The Michelin Guide’s arrival in Washington three years ago cemented the city’s status as a serious food destination. But with its first three-star restaurant, “it’s clear that Washington now has joined the ranks of the great gastronomic capitals of the world,” said Michael Ellis, the outgoing international director for the Michelin Guides.

The Inn, a restaurant and hotel modeled on the three-star inns of France, was elevated in the ratings this year after many visits, Ellis said, from “both the U.S. team as well as the international team. I had lot of French inspectors there.” Inspectors praised “the attention to detail on the plate,” Ellis said. “Also, he really has elevated the execution of his sauces to a degree that was just amazing.”

O’Connell’s third star coincides with the Inn’s 40th anniversary, an event the chef has feted throughout the year. Anniversaries are not something that Michelin takes into account, said Ellis, who called it a “nice coincidence.”

“To have him, in his 40th year of his activity, have the ultimate accolade from Michelin and our universe is a source of great pleasure for all of us,” Ellis said.

O’Connell said that he and his staff had been working intensely all year to achieve the third star. “We thought we had given it everything we had last year. But that wasn’t the case — we had more to give,” O’Connell said. “And we exceeded our own expectations this year with not only our efforts but our ability to form an intense common bond. There isn’t anyone in the operation right now” — from the cooks to the servers to the gardeners — “who isn’t all in, in wanting this acknowledgment.”

Review: Bresca shows off a young chef’s creative chops

Watch Andrew Wright demonstrate how to plate a signature dish for The Inn at Little Washington. (Video: McKenna Ewen/The Washington Post)

For Ratino, who has achieved his first Michelin star at 28, the phone call from Ellis was “unreal,” he said. While he was waiting to learn whether he had gotten a star, he “never had so much anxiety,” Ratino said.

Ellis said that his inspectors have been keeping an eye on Ratino since his days at Caviar Russe in New York. Now that Ratino has his star, the chef said he plans to take more risks at Bresca.

“I think maybe we could become a little bit more adventurous with the diners. With something like this, people trust you a little more,” Ratino said. “It’s just the beginning of that global recognition that can put a place on the map.”

Wiedmaier’s restaurant Siren, like Bresca, earned its star within its first year open, which was “totally unexpected,” Wiedmaier said. “When we came up with the vision, Brian and I, we always wanted this to be a Michelin-star restaurant.”

McBride, meanwhile, said he had “a little inkling that we might get one. … I put it out of my head and said, ‘Business as usual.’ ”

Wiedmaier’s fine-dining restaurant, Marcel’s, continued to be shut out of the star listing.

“My staff isn’t feeling very good there,” Wiedmaier said. “We’re going to work harder to get it next year.”

Last week, Michelin announced its list of Bib Gourmands, a designation given to excellent restaurants where you can get two dishes and a drink for less than $40. (It’s considered Michelin’s “cheap eats” list even though many have pointed out that $40 per person isn’t exactly cheap). The Washington Bib Gourmand list nearly doubled in size this year, adding 19 restaurants. A few of those buzz-worthy additions include Maydan, the Middle Eastern restaurant named one of the best new restaurants in the United States by Bon Appétit and Eater, as well as Fancy Radish, Spoken English, Tiger Fork and Timber Pizza Co.

The 19 additions is, “to my recollection, a record for any single edition in the United States,” Ellis said. It’s also, in part, the reason the guide has not yet expanded to the suburbs, as Michelin had promised. “There was just so much going on in D.C.,” Ellis said, that an expansion was put off for a later edition.

Two restaurants that have been highly acclaimed on other ratings guides fell short of earning a star or a Bib Gourmand. Elle and Himitsu, both of which have made the Bon Appétit list, were each named a l’Assiette Michelin, the designation for restaurants that are included without a Bib Gourmand or star rating. So, too, was Rasika, one of the area’s top-rated restaurants that has not yet earned a star, to the disappointment of its many fans. Ellis said that his team would continue to watch all three restaurants for future guides. This year’s Michelin Guide contains more than 70 restaurants with the l’Assiette Michelin designation, representing 36 types of cuisine.

“We’re not a phone book,” Ellis said. “Just being in the selection is an honor.”

The Michelin Guide was introduced by the tire company in 1900 as a travel guide — encouraging people to take road trips and, consequently, wear down their Michelin tires. While it has faced steep competition from other ratings systems, such as the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, its stars are still one of the highest honors for a restaurant and a designation chefs work their entire lives to achieve. Nevertheless, critics say that its ratings are rooted in a Eurocentric worldview and that more-casual American restaurants throw inspectors for a loop.

The guide utilizes inspectors from around the world. It never sends the same inspector to the same restaurant twice, and inspectors always pay for their own meals. Restaurants are rated on their creativity, personality, ingredient quality, value and consistency, among other factors. But factors outside of the diner’s experience are not taken into account. After the #MeToo awakening in restaurants over the past year, the James Beard Awards decided to evaluate chefs and restaurants on their character and integrity, in addition to the food. Michelin has no such plans.

“The second we let any considerations other than what’s on the plate into our consideration is game over for us,” Ellis said. “There’s a million different interest groups.”

Kapnos, the Greek restaurant owned by Mike Isabella, who recently declared bankruptcy after a high-profile sexual harassment suit against him was settled this spring, was included as l’Assiette Michelin. In cases where a chef or restaurateur has been accused of sexual harassment, “that will play out, whether in the courts or public opinion,” Ellis said. “Diners can vote with their feet.”

For chefs who make it to that level, a third star isn’t necessarily a relief. Some famous chefs have tried to “give back” their stars, a practice that Michelin rejects.

O’Connell said he understands the pressure. “I think that, as with many wonderful reviews, the pressure could be a little greater, or a lot greater, as the expectations mount and people come from a farther distance,” he said. “So if you’re traveling here from China and you’re someone who follows Michelin stars, you’re making a direct comparison between us as a three-star restaurant and the greatest three-star restaurant in Paris.”

But for O’Connell, who has worked his entire career for the honor, it’s an occasion for a major celebration. He recalled an employee asking him, years ago, what would happen if the Inn were to earn three stars.

“I said … ‘Champagne would be flowing in the streets of Little Washington,’ ” O’Connell said. “I hope big Washington is celebrating, too, and they realize that anything we can do collectively together to put the nation’s capital on the radar of the international culinary scene benefits everyone.”

More from Food:

Michelin’s cheap-eats list has doubled in size. What does that say about D.C. dining? 
It’s time for caviar for the rest of us — on ice cream, cookies and even burritos
From ‘Top Chef’ stardom to bankruptcy: The rise and fall of Mike Isabella