O’Connell, the Inn celebrate 39 years

With 39 years under his apron, Patrick O’Connell can now officially count down to the Big 40. What a journey it has been — and what a celebration it will be.

Consider that the world-famous Inn at Little Washington opened its doors on Jan. 28, 1978 during the worst blizzard of a decade, with no liquor license, insufficient electrical power, and a staff of two.

In those earliest of days you could buy an entrée for $4.95.

A simple menu on opening night, Jan. 28, 1978. Courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington

O’Connell and then-partner Reinhardt Lynch had been operating a catering business out of an old unheated farmhouse just outside the town of Washington — the couple’s culinary offerings created on a wood burning cookstove and electric frying pan

After a few years, the small following of customers they developed expressed the need for a local eatery. So the budding pair of chefs decided it was time to expand (if you call renting an old garage in town for $200 a month expansion).

With a savings of $5,000 between them and a loan from a nearby bank they were able to carve out a kitchen and before long the rural garage blossomed into a “country restaurant.” Life was good, although it was about to drastically change for the pair.

The old garage, one of several in Little Washington in those days, that became the world-famous Inn at Little Washington. Courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington

Only four weeks after their debut a restaurant critic from the nation’s capital, John Rosson of the Washington Evening Star, dined anonymously with the couple and would write that this unlikely new restaurant in a former gas station was already one of the country’s finest.

He described the experience as “a tour de force.”

Literally overnight, as the Washington Post later pointed out, O’Connell and Lynch became “culinary celebrities.” The rest is history.

“It seems like yesterday that we were starting out in a garage on Main Street with a staff of two in a dry county,” O’Connell observed on occasion of the Inn’s 39th birthday. “Four decades goes by pretty fast when you’re having this much fun.”

Take “fun” with a pinch of salt.

“I always expected it to get easier but it never does,” O’Connell acknowledged. “The challenges just get bigger.”

Patrick O’Connell then and now — in the latter photo toasting to the inn’s 39th birthday. Courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington
Courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington

Still, he said, the rewards far outweigh any headaches: “It’s been a thrill to watch the sons and daughters of our senior staff grow up and join the Inn’s family. We are forever grateful for the support and friendship of everyone in the town and county.”

This past year, as in years past, was nothing short of noteworthy for O’Connell, whose kitchen and entire inn continues to shine on both the national and world stage.

As widely reported, the esteemed 116-year-old Michelin Guide made its first ever foray into  Washington, D.C., last October and the Inn was awarded a prestigious two stars — one of three D.C.-area restaurants to earn the distinction, which was the highest rating in the Washington guide.

Tom Sietsema, in his 2016 Washington Post Dining Guide, also gave the Inn his highest score of four stars.

“Thirty-eight years after his dreamy dining destination opened within view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, ‘The Inn’ still manages to coax sighs and smiles from repeat guests,” the Postie wrote.

Additional recent rave reviews include: Forbes Travel Guide 2016 (formerly the Mobil Travel Guide) highest accolade of five stars; American Automobile Association (AAA) highest Five Diamond Award for 2017; No. 4 Getaway on Andrew Harper’s Hideaway 2016 Reader’s Choice Awards; Wine Spectator Grand Award; Le Chef Magazine Top 100 Chefs in the World; Saveur Culinary Travel Award for Best Hotel Restaurant; Departures Magazine Top 10 of America’s Most Charming Inns; and Trip Advisor 2016 Award of Excellence and top 10 percent worldwide of all businesses.

About John McCaslin 422 Articles
John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at editor@rappnews.com.