Last Updated on August 12, 2021 by Maggie McKneely
The Inn at Little Washington is the only restaurant in the DC-area with 3 Michelin stars. So what is dining there really like?
Dining at the Inn at Little Washington
As a Virginia foodie, a visit to the world-famous Inn at Little Washington has been on my bucket list for…well, most of my short 28 years of life. But since this Virginia foodie lives off of a non-profit salary budget, I hadn’t checked it off yet – because there’s no dodging the fact that one dinner at the Inn costs the same as a roundtrip plane ticket to Europe.
But in the era of COVID, when international travel is almost impossible and my family hasn’t been able to spend those travel dollars on a big trip, we decided to instead splurge on an evening out at Virginia’s most famous inn. Was it worth it? In short – YES.
What follows isn’t going to be your typical food critic’s review of a Michelin star restaurant. I’m a self-described snob, but I’m much easier to please than someone who gets paid to eat at these places (but if anyone wants to hire me, I won’t say no!). This article is more of a “budget traveler with expensive tastes gets to go to famous restaurant and fangirls” and “look at this pretty food! It tasted really good.” Which, after many courses with accompanying glasses of wine, was probably all the finesse I could get out of the English language. But if you enjoy drooling over food pictures, I am here for you.
History of the Inn at Little Washington
So how did this little inn in the middle of almost-nowhere come to be?
Washington, Virginia is only 67 miles from Washington DC (hence the nickname “Little Washington”), but the small town may as well be an entirely different world. With only 158 official residents, it’s hardly the place anyone would expect a destination eatery to be located. Which is why the town was so amused when, in 1978, Patrick O’Connell and his partner, Reinhardt Lynch, set about converting an old garage into a restaurant. The stucco garage had been built in 1895 and operated as a gas station with a dance hall above it. Until O’Connell rented it out, it had been slated for demolition.
Eventually, the garage was cleaned up, a kitchen installed, and the restaurant opened in January of 1978. They had insufficient electrical power, a small staff of only 3, and the grand opening took place in the midst of the worst blizzard of the decade. But a few short weeks afterward, an anonymous restaurant reviewer from Washington, DC visited the Inn and wrote that it was the best restaurant within 150 miles of the nation’s capital.
At this point, O’Connell had never received any formal training as a chef. So at the end of the first year, he closed the restaurant for a month so that he could travel to Europe and the best restaurants in France, where he learned that many of the chefs there were also self-taught. This European pilgrimage became a yearly event, and when the Inn opened for overnight accommodations in 1984, O’Connell added hotels to his list of places to visit overseas too.
In 1989, the Inn became the first ever to receive a 5-star award from the Mobil Travel Guide. The following year, it received two 5-star awards: one for the inn, and one for the restaurant. Celebrities and politicians began flocking to “Little Washington” to see what all the success was about.
Since then, the Inn has continued to receive award after award. Patrick O’Connell has been named the top chef in America by a number of organizations, including the James Beard Foundation. Travel and Leisure named the Inn the number one hotel and restaurant in the United States and number 2 in the world. La Liste, the French-based guide to the world’s best restaurants, currently ranks it as #6 in the world. The 2021 Forbes Travel Guide awarded the Inn 5 stars, making it the longest-tenured 5-star restaurant in the world. And it continues to maintain its 3-star Michelin rating, the only Michelin-rated restaurant in Virginia and the only one with 3 stars near Washington, DC.
Dinner at the Inn
Needless to say, my expectations were pretty high. I knew how famous it was, I knew it had a list of awards long enough to fill up a book, and I definitely knew what the price tag for dinner was going to be. And boy, oh boy, did it live up to all of the accolades.
The one thing that all of the notoriety fails to convey is just how unpretentious the Inn is. It obviously could be if it wanted to be. But Patrick O’Connell has frequently described it as nothing more than “a little country inn,” where everyone should feel welcome to come as they are. (An example of this is are his various letters from famous people – like oh, the queens of England and Spain, Julia Child, and numerous presidents – are hanging on a bathroom wall. A BATHROOM wall. Personally, I would have hung them where no one could miss them, but I’m not nearly as humble as O’Connell, apparently.)
The dining room is simultaneously magnificent yet cozy and comfortable. Rose-colored lampshades hang above each table, Bordeaux-inspired tapestries hang on the walls, and velvet-backed chairs surround tables draped in white linen. Each place is set with hand-painted chargers and napkins embossed with the Inn’s logo.
But because this is the era of COVID, there had to be ONE weird thing about the dining room. In the name of social distancing, instead of just placing “closed” signs on tables, the Inn has seated mannequins at tables they aren’t currently using. I suppose this is so that the dining room doesn’t feel as empty at less than 100% capacity, but I thought it looked a little creepy. We were seated at a stand-alone table, but the poor couple placed at a table in-between two mannequin couples looked thoroughly uncomfortable. I didn’t go to the Inn expecting my one complaint to be “mannequins,” but these are strange times.
Food, Glorious Food
From the moment we arrived, with the valets greeting us at our car and the host welcoming us in the lobby, to the time we finally left much later that evening, the entire evening felt like a choreographed event. Waiters would bring dishes to our table at the exact right moment, and lift off lids or pour the appropriate sauce with a “ta-da!” sort of flair. Glasses were switched out for each course and sommeliers explained the hows and whys behind every wine tasting. And every dish was a work of art.
The experience was designed to make guests feel relaxed and ensure they don’t need to put effort into anything – including what to order. The Inn operates on a 5-course tasting menu format, usually offering 2-4 different menus you can pick from. The evening we were there, they offered both a vegetarian menu and a menu for everyone else. But you are free to mix and match dishes from both.
Anyone who has ever watched a cooking show with elite chefs knows that food can be plated in odd ways. Wich was the case with our first dish, which wasn’t even part of the five courses – a savory parmesan cannoli stuffed with pimento cheese and served….on a black rock. The cannoli was, of course, excellent. And though everyone tilted their heads and thought “why is it sitting on a rock?” it did make picking up the cannoli easier than if it were just laid out flat on the plate.
Pre-dinner extra dish #2 was a green pea mousse served with country ham and a parmesan straw. This ended with me trying not to just drink it from the saucer because oh my word, who knew anything with the title “green pea mousse” could be so excellent.
But my favorite pre-dinner snack, at least aesthetically, was the butter bell served with a french baguette and rye coins. Shaped and grooved like a beehive, with a mini bee perched on top and salted honey served with it, it was the perfect example of how the Inn’s chef likes to serve excellent, high-quality dishes that are creative, approachable, and unpretentious.
And now we finally arrive at course #1: in the Inn at Little Washington’s own words, “a “star-kissed” tuna and foie gras confit awash in a black truffle vinaigrette.” (From now on, whenever I serve anything with a sauce, I’m using the word “awash”).
We were understandably confused when we were each served a plate with a sardine can laid on it and surrounded by fake seaweed. This is THE INN – what was on our plates?! But then the waiters removed the lid, revealing the tuna and foie gras, and joked that this was yet another example of the chef simply playing with the food. Just because it’s a nice restaurant doesn’t mean you can’t serve tuna in a sardine can.
And once we took that first bite, all confusion was forgiven. I typically don’t enjoy foie gras, but paired with that flaky, rich tuna and “awash” in a syrupy vinaigrette, it was absolutely divine.
Next up was essentially a deconstructed caesar salad with lamb. The lamb carpaccio (thinly sliced raw lamb), was served beneath crouton nuggets, capers, and caesar salad ice cream domes (reason #435 why I’m not a top chef – I would never come up with caesar salad ice cream). At the top of the plate was the requisite lettuce leaf filled with Parmesan cheese, with a swoosh of pesto sauce. It was was both the oddest dish of the evening and my favorite.
This was followed by a course of grilled black kingfish and the starring entree, a pan-seared duck breast with foie gras (I happily endured this iteration of it too) and sour cherries.
I would have enjoyed every bite without the additional glass of wine with every course, but that certainly didn’t hurt the situation. Every wine we were served perfectly complimented the dish it accompanied, but if you visit the Inn and want to make your own wine selections, they have 2400 different wines available in their cellar, hailing from local Virginia wineries and from the best wine regions in the world, such as Bordeaux, Tuscany, and California.
The finale of the food portion of the evening was a lemon meringue tartlet alongside a blackberry frozen yogurt. My only complaint is that it needed to be the whole tart.
This was a bucket list item that, in my humble opinion, lived up to the hype. From the incredible food, the amazing and friendly service, the orchestration of the whole evening, and the welcoming atmosphere of the Inn, the whole experience was incredible. If you ever have the opportunity to spend an evening at the Inn at Little Washington, do it.
Things to Know:
Reservations are required pretty far in advance. Go here to make one.
There is no official dress code; Patrick O’Connell describes the establishment as just “a little country inn” and everyone is welcome to come as they are. However, most women wear dresses and men usually wear sports coats.
The Inn is located at the intersection of Middle and Main streets in Washington, Virginia, about an hour and a half from Washington, DC.
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