A Brief History of The Inn at Little Washington
Long, long, ago, and far, far away in a tiny town nestled deep in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, 67 miles away from its big sister city on the Potomac, the 158 inhabitants of “Little” Washington watched with amusement and incredulity as two long-haired, young men set about converting a former garage on the corner of Main and Middle Streets into a restaurant.
The barn-like, frame and stucco building was constructed around 1895 and had operated as a gas station with a dance hall above it. Wrecked cars still decorated the side yard. The structure had been a candidate for demolition but it was deemed too expensive to tear down and too risky to burn– given its location.
Patrick O’Connell and Reinhardt Lynch had been operating a catering business out of an old, unheated farmhouse nearby, using a wood-burning cookstove and an electric frying pan. After a few years they had developed a small following of well-to-do clients in desperate need of a local eatery.
The partners were able to rent the old garage in town for 200 dollars a month. With a savings of $5,000 between them and a loan from a nearby bank they were able to build a kitchen and begin transforming the old building into a charming country restaurant.
The Inn at Little Washington opened on January 28, 1978, during the worst blizzard of the decade with no liquor license, insufficient electrical power, and a staff of three. Weeks afterwards, a Washington, D.C. restaurant reviewer dined anonymously and wrote that it was the best restaurant in a radius of 150 miles of the nation’s capital. The lowest price entrée was $4.95.
At the end of the first year the partners closed for the month of January and went on a gastronomic pilgrimage to the great restaurants of France. At that time their were few destination restaurants outside major metropolitan areas to use as role models within the U.S. and these European reference points became instrumental in galvanizing a direction and in shaping an ultimate goal for the Inn at Little Washington to achieve.
O’Connell had not received any formal training as a chef and it was particularly inspirational for him to meet several of the greatest chefs working in Europe at the time and realize that they were also self-taught. These winter forays to Europe’s greatest restaurants became a yearly tradition and when plans for overnight accommodations at The Inn began to take shape, the partners also began visiting the world’s best hotels in their journeys.
By 1984, The Inn’s first guest rooms opened to glowing reviews from the travel press. In 1987, The Inn became a member of the Paris-based, luxury hotel association, Relais & Chateaux and in 1989, made history when it became the first inn ever to receive the Mobil Travel Guide’s five star award.
A year later, Mobil announced that for the first time in their 34 years of rating hotels and restaurants, The Inn had received two 5-Star Awards—one for its restaurant as well as one for the accommodations. Celebrities, politicians and hospitality leaders flocked to “Little” Washington to see what on earth was going on.
Success built on success. In 1991, the James Beard Foundation began honoring American chefs at its annual galas. The second year, O’Connell was named Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic Region. The next year, The Inn was recognized as the Outstanding Restaurant in America and went on to win the national awards for service and wine service. Then in 2001, Patrick was honored with the prestigious Outstanding Chef in America Award. The International Herald Tribune picked the Inn as one of the 10 best restaurants in the world and Travel + Leisure Magazine rated The Inn number 1 in North America and number 2 in the world in their World’s Best Awards.
The Inn at Little Washington remains a life’s work in progress.