An Awakening at the Inn at Little Washington

By Nevin Martell, Edible DC Contributor

 Indira and Nevin Martell dining at the Inn at Little Washington.

Indira and Nevin Martell dining at the Inn at Little Washington.

“Pack your swimsuit, your passport and something nice to wear at dinner.”

Those were my girlfriend’s instructions for my birthday weekend getaway more than a decade ago.

Where are we going? What are we doing? Can you give me a hint? I pestered her endlessly, but Indira refused to reveal anything more.

So, on a Friday afternoon in late September, we got in the car and drove out of DC. At first, I thought our route might take us to Reagan National or Dulles International, but soon enough both airports were in our rearview mirror.

As we drove farther and farther out into the state’s greenbelt, I became more confused and curious. Finally, we pulled into a sleepy burg in Rappahannock County.

“We’re having dinner at the Inn at Little Washington—no passport or swimsuit required,” Indira finally revealed. “I took a poll of everyone at the office and they all agreed it was the best restaurant in the area.”

The stately teal manse with white accents on the corner of the town’s center certainly looked impressive. Stepping inside amplified the sense of grandeur, because I felt like I was entering an elegant French manor house. Though I grew up the son of a restaurateur and had dined around the world while traveling with my family, I wasn’t prepared for the experience that followed.

First, there was the service. It was beyond elevated, while never feeling stuffy or overbearing. The staff at the fancier restaurants I dined at previously seemed to excel at making patrons feel uninformed and somehow inferior. There was none of that at the Inn. The sommelier gracefully took a gauge of our likes and dislikes, and then recommended a reasonably priced bottle, while the server happily answered all of our questions about the food and the restaurant’s history. We were so at ease so quickly, we could have been having dinner at a dear relative’s house.

And then Chef Patrick O’Connell’s food began to arrive. Each new course was wondrous in its own way. Indira and I would each try our selection, and then insist the other taste what we had just eaten because it was so magical. To be honest, I don’t remember the individual dishes as much as I remember the delight I felt with each new presentation and taste. I do recall the mosaic of thin-sliced lamb carpaccio with orbs of ice cream that delivered all the flavors of a Caesar salad, which still endures as one of O’Connell’s most iconic creations.

It was easily one of the best meals of my life. I knew I wouldn’t forget it. However, I didn’t realize it would awake a deeper appreciation for food and a desire to learn more about the stories behind it. As we drove back to DC at the end of the weekend, I was still buzzing, absolutely electrified by the experience.

Over the ensuing years, the feeling didn’t fade. If anything, it grew stronger, and so I began eating out as much as possible. Back then, the DC dining scene was still relatively nascent—compared to where it has evolved to today—but there were still lots of great restaurants and talented chefs. I still treasure meals I had at Michel Richard’s Citronelle, a just-opened Volt and with Victor Albisu when he was still helming BLT Steak.

When Indira and I traveled, we’d always make sure to program a lot of good eats into our itinerary. In 2009, we picked Anguilla as our honeymoon destination because we read somewhere that the Caribbean island has more restaurants per square mile than New York City. I’m not sure if that boast is true, but we barely stopped eating for two weeks straight.

Every stop on this journey introduced me to new ingredients, new cuisines, new talents and new favorite restaurants. I wanted to share everything I was learning with anyone who would listen, so I decided to quit my job as a television development executive and go back to being a freelance writer. However, instead of focusing on music and pop culture as I had before, now I would be all about food.

It was perfect timing. The ascent of the region’s restaurant scene gave me plenty of stories to tell. Over the next few years, I wrote for The Washington Post, Men’s Journal, Travel + Leisure, NPR, Eater and others, and I penned cookbooks with Founding Farmers and Red Truck Bakery.

No matter where I get to dine for work or pleasure these days, I still love celebrating special occasions at the Inn, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Last fall, I told my wife pack a bag for her birthday weekend getaway. It didn’t take her long to guess where we were going, but that didn’t detract from her delight. This time, we sat at one of the kitchen tables so we could watch the creative process unfold. As we savored our meal and exchanged bites, we talked about how much had happened in the 10 years since we first dined at the Inn—and how much of it happened because we had dined at the Inn.

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You’re Looking Swell at 40: The Inn at Little Washington Celebrates a Big Birthday

 Before it became a decorated hub for fine dining, the building that currently houses the Inn at Little Washington was once a gas station.

Before it became a decorated hub for fine dining, the building that currently houses the Inn at Little Washington was once a gas station.

Tucked away in Rappahannock County, what was once a gas station is now one of the most esteemed restaurants in the U.S. Forty years ago, The Inn at Little Washington opened its doors on January 28. No one could have anticipated it would become a legend.

The bumpy-start stories are well known and seem quaint, mainly revolving around purveyors and diners asking, “Where are we?” No liquor license—the county was dry. A staff of three on opening night. Yet, the buzz started very soon and months after the opening, a Washington, DC, restaurant critic pronounced that it was the best restaurant “within a radius of 150 miles of the nation’s capital.”

Those who had wondered if Chef Patrick O’Connell could be successful then worried that he couldn’t keep winning accolade after accolade. Perhaps 40 years is proof enough. The little Inn that could has won five James Beard Awards, five Diamonds from AAA, two Michelin stars and has become the longest-tenured Five Star restaurant in America.

The Inn’s team announced early in the year that, much like the Queen of England’s Jubilee year, celebrations for The Inn would take place over the year. From press materials: “Over the course of 2018 we will celebrate Patrick’s 40-year legacy as the ‘Pope of American Cuisine’ with four events focused on philanthropy, historical preservation and relationships.”

At Mount Vernon, on June 16, Chef O’Connell will hold a garden party to benefit the Mt. Vernon Ladies’ Association, and on Sept. 2, the Washington village will become Innstock for an all-day celebration “channeling Woodstock.” This event will feature a “family reunion” of former employees who return to create an outdoor feast, open to the public. For more information, go to theinnat40.com.