| A Getaway to a Legendary Small Hotel in the Foothills of the Blue Ridge
By Carol Joynt
Don’t feel guilty if as the holidays wind down you feel the need for one more little holiday to get over the holidays. All that accumulated stress perhaps could use an antidote. Or, maybe, you began a romance that would bounce to the next level with the right indulgent getaway.
Here’s the news: there is a small hotel where you can disappear into whatever remedy or fantasy is desired, and it comes with fires in the hearth, good food, and deep fluffy beds to ward off winter’s chill.
Back at the beginning, and then for only a short while, The Inn at Little Washington was a well-kept secret among the foodies of big Washington. They knew that chef Patrick O’Connell and his partner, Reinhardt Lynch, were up to something special with the restaurant they opened in what used to be a garage smack in the middle of a pretty but sleepy rural town in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. The two met while working at one Washington area restaurant and then together moved to Rappahannock County to cater private parties for notables like columnist James J. Kilpatrick while pulling together the money to launch their vision.
|Clockwise from top left: Little Washington is 65 highway miles from big Washington, but feels like a magic carpet ride back in time; A destination, and chef/owner, like no other; A doorman greets guests arriving at The Inn. There is always someone to meet you at the door; The Inn at Little Washington at twilight on Christmas eve.|
|When it opened in the late 70s, patrons walked through a basket shop to get to the dining room, where the woven chandeliers were made by Patrick, the tables were dressed with lacy paper placements and the china was sweet but mass market. The décor was pleasant, but what got everyone’s attention was Patrick’s cooking: a sophisticated and inventive take on mid-Atlantic and, particularly, rural cuisine.
The signature dishes were “Veal Shenandoah” and a “Timbale of Maryland Crabmeat.” Indigenous ingredients were staples, whether that meant locally caught trout, Virginia ham or the candied grapefruit peel made by an elderly lady who lived one yard over. Reinhardt trained the staff to provide a level of service that was informed and gracious. It all came together beautifully.
|Left, top and bottom: Two views of The Inn's main lobby. Top right: The front desk at The Inn. The plates atop the moulding are from some of the world's most celebrated restaurants. Above, right: At the top of the stairs, leading to the guest rooms, is a lamp that has been with The Inn since it opened almost 30 years ago.|
|A view into the dining room.||A place to sit and relax in the upper lobby, adjacent to guest rooms.|
|Bedroom #8, with a welcoming bottle of champagne chilling in an ice bucket on the tray table.|
|Word spread fast and within a couple of years The Inn at Little Washington was routinely packed. Soon after that the restaurant press found them, the accolades started to roll in, and a legend was in the making.
That was almost 30 years ago. The Inn is still in the same stuccoed building that once was a garage, but it has been thoroughly made over into one of the world’s most beautiful and glamorous small hotels. The paper placemats are long gone, and the décor is lush and elaborate, with exquisite rooms for spending a night or more. The beds are sensual cocoons. Yes, sex is better here. Zagat, who call it a “mecca,” consider it the top inn in the United States for excellence in every category. It has long been a Mobile Five Star, an AAA Five Diamond and James Beard Award winner.
|The Inn has a few guest houses that are separate from the main building. This one (left), The Claiborne House, is named after the late Craig Claiborne (a devout Inn patron). It is the most elaborate and has been host to Vice President and Mrs. Gore, as well as Warren Beatty, Annette Bening and their children, among others. This guest accommodation (right) is called the "Mayor's House."|
|The Inn's courtyard garden; and a message for all who partake of The Inn's many pleasures, tucked away in the garden.|
|It has been in The Relais and Chateaux family almost since the organization came to America. Also, The Inn now owns the original building plus several adjoining properties they use for guest rooms, staff accommodations and offices. There was a traumatic rupture in the last couple of years with the break-up in the personal and professional relationship of O’Connell and Lynch, but The Inn survived and now under O’Connell’s sole ownership it is better than ever.
These are just some of the reasons it was the perfect place to spend Christmas Eve. We were looking for a transcendent experience, and on that score The Inn always delivers. There is no detail ignored, no want or need that’s not meant. The staff have a mysterious ability to read patrons’ minds. Their unique brand of magic carpet is rolled out at the doorstep and carries you through to the moment you must, well-fed and pampered, return to reality.
|A view into the kitchen before Christmas eve dinner.||By design, Patrick O'Connell's kitchen is one of the most beautifully decorated rooms at The Inn.|
|Clockwise from top left: Some details from the mural in The Monkey Bar (3); The well-stocked Monkey Bar at The Inn at Little Washington; Looking through The Monkey Bar to the main lobby.|
|The Inn has two rooms that are available for afternoon tea, and drinks before or after dinner, the Living Room and the Monkey Bar. First, a few views of The Living Room (which, once upon a time, was the Inn's kitchen).|
|That’s why it attracts clientele from all over the world, and more bold-faced names than any rural outpost should expect. Barbra Streisand arrived for and was served lunch, even though The Inn does not serve lunch. Warren Beatty and Annette Bening arrived suddenly and liked it so much they stayed and stayed and stayed. In fact, when they expressed a desire to “see some autumn leaves,” O’Connell and Lynch decorated the private “kitchen table” with fresh cut branches of brilliant autumn color to make their wish come true over dinner.
Former Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan and NBC’s Andrea Mitchell took over the entire hotel for their wedding. Robert Duvall, who lives nearby, is a regular. When Vice President Al Gore wanted a romantic night with Tipper away from Washington, he booked an overnight. The stories are endless about sightings of the celebrated and the high-and-mighty at The Inn, but celebrity is not required to be treated like you matter.We arrived Christmas Eve afternoon soon after the 3 o’clock check-in time.
|The dining room before Christmas eve dinner.|
|Though it was Christmas, the hotel’s pattern of service was the same as always. Our bags were whisked to the rooms while we headed to the Living Room, a beautiful lounge off the courtyard garden, for a service of tea and tiny sandwiches, cookies and pastries. The tea menu is extensive and includes green, black, white and herbal flavors.
After tea we took advantage of the mild weather and the last hour of daylight to take a walk around the tranquil town of Little Washington, whose elders like to point was the “first” Washington and was also, in fact, surveyed by young George Washington before he went on to a larger career and greater responsibilities. It remains the seat of Rappahannock County and the handsome courthouse and other official buildings dominate one end of the main street.
There is a preserved period theater, a master carpenter’s shop, some real estate offices, a few B&B’s, the newspaper office, some lawyers’ offices, a few shops, and not much else. A walkabout is well worth the time because the houses in Little Washington are, for the most part, old, interesting and attractive. Some are small in-town estates.
A walk before dinner is a must. A walk after dinner is a good idea, too, because if it is a cloudless night you will see a million stars.
|Trinity Episcopal Church, across the street from The Inn, held a Christmas Eve candlelight service. Its not uncommon for couples to marry at Trinity and have their wedding party at The Inn.|
|The main street of Little Washington was all quiet on Christmas Eve.|
|We visited Trinity Episcopal Church for their 5 o’clock Christmas Eve candlelight service. The church interior is elegant in its rural simplicity. The service was SRO as young, middle and old gathered together to say prayers, hear a sermon and sing traditional Carols.
After that it was time to enjoy our rooms for a while, dress for the evening and then take a seat in the dining room for the pleasures that are a Patrick O’Connell meal. Dom Perignon and little crisps with caviar were served to set up our appetites, followed by a bowl of Truffled Popcorn. Yep. You read that right. Popcorn seasoned with parsley, truffle oil, Parmesan cheese and pepper and then dusted with fresh black truffle shaved by a white-gloved waiter. This was so good I can’t get it out of my mind. I wish it were available at the corner deli.
Truffles and caviar would appear again through the meal, which included White Bean Soup, “Beet Fantasia,” Roasted Eggplant Raviolis with Tomato Sauce with Maine Lobster Medallions, and Olive Oil Poached Halibut on Parsley Risotto, Ginger Stewed Tomatoes and Caramelized Bok Choy. Also Macaroni and Cheese with Virginia Country Ham, Carpaccio of Baby Lamb, and Veal Cheeks with Saffron Risotto. The desserts were The Inn’s famous “Seven Deadly Sins,” a sampler of their most decadent sweets, and Pineapple Ravioli. Then back to the Living Room for coffee and cognac and an after-dinner catch-up with Chef O’Connell, who is a dear and long-time friend.
|Dinner is served. Some views of Christmas Eve dinner at The Inn.|
|A waiter shaves black truffle onto The Inn's Macaroni and Cheese with Virginia Country Ham.||A popular dessert known as "The Seven Deadly Sins."|
|The rolling cow that carries the cheese selections. It also "moo's."||The many Cognacs, Brandies, Ports and Eau de Vie available in the Living Room after dinner.|
|We recalled that for years The Inn was typically closed on Christmas and open for New Year’s, but for the past few years they have remained open for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Patrick prepared this year by giving himself a few days at Canyon Ranch in Tucson.
As much as the trip was to get in shape for the hard work of the holidays, I’m sure some homework was involved, too. He told us that after The Inn celebrates its 30th anniversary festivities in the winter and spring he will likely set his sights on creating a spa for the property. In the meantime, there are services like massage.
|Christmas morning just after sunrise. The moon is visible just over the hilltop. This field is across from The Inn.|
|Early morning sunlight graces some of Little Washington's charming houses and cottages.|
|It’s easy to get there from Washington’s Reagan or Dulles airports, with Dulles being closer. You can make arrangements for a driver through the Inn, but I say rent a car and enjoy the country drive.
Take Route 66 west to the Marshall exit, and then get on rolling and rural route 647, one of the most beautiful drives in the United States, which with one right turn in Flint Hill onto the Fodderstack Road, will take you to The Inn’s front door. Do I need to point out bring lots of money? Sometimes the best things in life are not free, but still worth every $100 bill.
|The morning papers.||Brightly wrapped clementines at the front desk.|
|Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.|