From time to time Hotel Central editor Susan O’Keefe likes to check in with industry folks—from GMs to chefs and housekeeping staff—for a behind-the-scenes chat. She begins with a talk with Patrick O’Connell, proprietor and chef of the acclaimed Inn at Little Washington, an elegant English country hideaway in Rappahannock County, Virginia, tucked in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains about two hours from Washington, D.C.
At the end of this month (Jan. 28), the Inn will celebrate its 30th anniversary. A gala dinner will be held on April 9 in Washington, D.C. that will benefit YouthAIDS. Foodies can snag one of the 500 tickets at $575 per person (includes wine and gratuity). Guests dining at the Inn’s five-star restaurant from now until February 8 (except for Tuesdays and Saturdays) will receive a gratis glass of Dom Perignon champagne and a $30 gift certificate compliments of Patrick and his staff.
Happy Anniversary Patrick. After 30 years and receiving nearly every award ever bestowed on a restaurant and inn, where do you go from here?
We just keep going and continue doing what we’re passionate about. We’re becoming a self-sufficient farmstead with the recent addition of our own agricultural area that includes an orchard of Montmorency cherries—a small but full-of-flavor cherry that will be used in our jellies and clafouti dessert in the restaurant. We’re raising a colony of bees for pollination and for creating our own honey, we’ll introduce sheep and llamas that will graze in a meadow. We’ve developed a network of local farmers who custom-grow vegetables that aren’t the size of my leg—small zucchini and eggplant that are flavorful. Pathways to this area will link to the inn and cottages and allow guests to walk to the orchards, see what’s growing in the herb and vegetable gardens—all featured in our dishes daily.
You added your kitchen ten years ago and designed it to look like the dairy room of Windsor Castle. Anything new being added to the Inn?
This past summer we added the Claiborne House—named for my good friend Craig Claiborne who was the food editor of the New York Times—a fabulous two-bedroom hideaway with its own dining room, a library filled with Craig’s cookbooks, living room, media room, and formal garden created by Dutch landscape designer Guy Williams. Craig celebrated his birthday in this house. We also have added the Gamekeeper’s Cottage, a two-story retreat that is a departure from the opulent interiors of the Inn, and features a decor that I call “elegant rusticity.” It has limestone floors, a stone fireplace, a large soaking tub, and an outdoor dining pavilion with pastoral views. Every detail looks as if it’s been there forever. It will allow guests to have a closer connection to nature.
What are some of the signature elements of the Inn that a guest can expect during their visit?
The Inn offers a sense of place, but also a sense of personality. We gauge every guest’s mood from the moment they set foot in the door, and make it our mission to make them happy and have their experience be life-changing. There are fresh flowers everywhere, our Dalmatian greets guests wearing a strand of pearls (appropriate since 30-year anniversaries are celebrated with pearls), tea is served daily in the library, breakfast can be brought to your room, if you prefer.
What are the Tavern Shops you purchased across from the Inn?
The Tavern Shops
are an amenity for the guests, especially those who want to take home a piece of the Inn. The building dates back to 1740, and we’ve restored it in a way that each of the five period rooms looks like a museum.
There’s a kitchen where we sell our homemade jams and jellies, spices, French sea salt, my cookbooks, and Dalmatian-pattern aprons, the dining room displays our china and glassware. In another area of the shops, a former general store, we have an art gallery where we feature paintings and jewelry by local artists who hold meet-and-greets on some evenings.
We’ve heard dinner reservations for a Saturday night can take months, any tricks to securing a reservation?
Everyone wants to dine at 7:30 on a Saturday night. Most people don’t know that we’re open on Sundays at 4 p.m. and you can dine and still drive back (with no traffic) to the Washington, D.C. in time to catch the ten o’clock news. Also, if you’re a guest of the Inn, you are guaranteed a seat at one of the 30 tables in the restaurant. For special occasions, we have two banquettes flanking a manorial fireplace in a living room-like setting inside the kitchen with a direct view of the kitchen’s 34-member staff.
Tell us about Washington, Virginia.
It’s really a rural American village that is still unspoiled and hasn’t changed much since George Washington surveyed the streets and named them. I recommend that guests to the area just walk around town to see the quirky architectural details. And starting up again in the spring (on Sundays), we’ll do a walking tour of the area that begins in our Tavern Shops and takes in the architecture, local churches, some of the history, and ends in our kitchen where I greet the guests and together we have a drink.
What do you recommend visitors to the area see or do?
- Nat Geo Expeditions
is only 45 minutes away. Skyline Drive is six miles from the inn and offers spectacular views of the valley. There are several wineries and antique shops to visit. Most people don’t realize that something this rural is so close to a major city and offers the feeling of being in a country village.
If you could open another inn, where would it be and how would it be different and unique?
I joke that I’ll one day open a motel with aluminum siding and interiors that are all sand and white hues. But the reality is that I would re-create exactly what I’m doing already. This is a reflection of my taste and I love sharing it with the public.
Photos: The Inn at Little Washington