For Moms and Dads who love elevated dining and five-star service, The Inn at Little Washington, a Relais and Châteaux property just outside of Washington DC, is the ultimate gourmet getaway. The accolades of The Inn at Little Washington are too numerous to list: Forbes Five-Star, AAA Five-Star, and the holy grail of them all, a three Michelin star restaurant.
For foodies, this place is a pilgrimage you dream to a make a ritual.
I had lusted after this property for years and had the chance to visit recently for an anniversary and it exceeded every expectation, even with pandemic-era restrictions. Who knew we’d be dining with mannequins? More on that later, but it’s safe to say that they provided exceptional company. I also looked forward to experiencing the Inn’s extravagant holiday décor.
Where is the Inn at Little Washington?
Founded in 1769 by George Washington, the town of Washington, Virginia, sits at the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains adjacent to Shenandoah National Park. There’s not much to do in the surrounding towns and the closest airport is Washington Dulles, 42 miles away. Route 29 South from DC winds past several respectable Virginia wineries, including one of our favorites, Narmada.
After a quick tasting, we were still too early for check-in, so we continued on to Skyline Drive, only twelve miles past the Inn. Skyline Drive has great scenery at any time of year, but especially during fall months when the foliage is spectacular. We drove a few miles and pulled off a few scenic overlooks, taking pictures along the way.
The once struggling town of Washington (Pop: 133) has over the years morphed into an immaculate, storybook hamlet centered around the Inn and its restaurant. Several home décor boutiques and art galleries line the Main Street, but not much else.
The Inn’s main boutique features upscale home décor and culinary gifts, including the chef’s signature Dalmatian printed aprons. Dalmatians are a theme at the Inn, and the pattern graces everything from kitchen towels and aprons, to pandemic-era face masks. Even Carson was wearing one during our visit.
Know before you go
Plan ahead, as there are no casual dining options immediately available for lunch unless you venture outside the town or preorder a picnic from the Inn’s kitchen. Plans are in place for a cafe, as well as a general store, but they currently remain under construction.
Intent on making the most of our 24-hour getaway, we arrived at the Inn promptly at the three o’clock check-in. White-gloved valets in bowler hats greet you upon arrival and it soon becomes clear you won’t be doing any heavy lifting during your time here. The exterior exudes a country inn charm with greens, wreaths and bows bedecking every window.
The Inn’s reception area is small but cozy with an English country feel. We were offered a seasonal champagne cocktail and a tour of the Inn’s main spaces— worthy of the trip by themselves.
Where Rooms and Meals are Theater
There are twenty three rooms and suites at the Inn, all decorated in their own style by London stage and set designer, Joyce Conwy Evans. Minimalists beware: décor at The Inn at Little Washington follows the maxim of more is more. Every space is a thoughtfully executed exercise in drama. Heavy drapes, intriguing bric-a-brac, jewel-toned colors and sexy lamplight is the name of the game in every room at the Inn.
Joyce Conwy Evans and Patrick O’Connell met through a mutual friend. O’Connell envisioned the Inn as a country inn and did not like the initial suggestions of his architect, who advised O’Connell to paint everything white. He referred O’Connell to his friend Joyce Conwy Evans, a well-known set designer in London theatre who also dabbled in interiors.
Setting the Stage at the Inn
She took the architectural drawings of the Inn and, sight-unseen, created detailed watercolor drawings for every room in the Inn. Copies of the original watercolor drawings are actually sold in the Inn’s boutique. They are beautiful, and I purchased one for my own home.
Conwy Evans is known for her use of William Morris wallpaper and fabrics and interesting ceiling treatments. No ceiling disappoints a glance up at the Inn—all have wallpapers, fabric paneled or feature hand-painted murals. O’Connell took her drawings as gospel and interpreted them down to every last detail. Their partnership is an enduring part of the Inn’s appeal.
The Monkey Lounge, a cheeky space off the reception area, is adorned with a hand-painted mural and plush banquettes. It is the perfect spot for a pre-dinner cocktail. The Inn’s Living Room is overflowing with damask armchairs and velvet tufted settees, set under an elaborately hand-painted ceiling. According to the book Inn at Little Washington: A Magnificent Obsession the Monkey Lounge is meant as a delight for the eyes that only becomes more appealing with each cocktail you consume.
The Inn at Little Washington Rooms
The Main Inn has seven guest rooms, and five suites, each named after a culinary pioneer. Six outbuildings a few steps away, house the remaining rooms. The most romantic accommodation is undoubtedly The Gamekeepers Cottage, a standalone cottage with exposed beams, stone fireplace, and outdoor terrace overlooking the mountains. Many rooms at the Inn have balconies and fireplaces; each has a unique layout.
We opted for a junior suite in the Main Inn, The Jacques Pepin Suite. The room was large, with an entry foyer and enormous bathroom with faux-painted tented ceiling. Bathroom fixtures show thier age, but the décor and sheer size made up for the lack of sleek fittings. The bedroom had a seating area with small loveseat, two chairs, a desk and a gas fireplace. A small terrace with two chairs overlooked the Inn’s kitchen garden.
As a couples’ or girlfriends’ getaway, the Claiborne House, a two-bedroom outbuilding complete with private porches, gardens, kitchen and dining room is the ultimate choice. It comes fully stocked with bourbon, beer, wine and gourmet treats.
A Note about Families
There is no age limit on guests at both the hotel and the dining room. ‘The hotel ‘accepts children with grace’. But both times we have visited, we have never seen any children. We did see a family of four with 20-something children. I can’t imagine the hotel wouldn’t welcome children, but the fixed, very sophisticated menu at the restaurant probably would only appeal to children who ask for tasting menus for their birthdays.
Also, it’s worth noting that recreation on site features limited options in surrounding area, and visiting with the field animals.
Amenities at the Inn
Rooms come with plush robes, Bulgari bath products, and three-times daily housekeeping. Complimentary goodies abound, including handmade chocolates and cookies from the Inn’s kitchen, port and cookies at turndown, and personalized welcome letters from the chef.
All room bookings come with a welcome cocktail, full afternoon tea, breakfast in the dining room, complimentary valet parking and a guaranteed dinner reservation in the Inn’s restaurant.
After settling, we headed to the Living Room for full afternoon tea, which included tea sandwiches, shortbread, tarts and other sweets. It was a relaxing way to start our visit.
We tried to walk it off in the Inn’s gardens. A ¾ mile loop, the ‘Field of Dreams,’ winds around an area the Inn. The field is home to resident sheep, chickens, and a llama, and includes beautiful views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It also houses the gardens that provide fresh produce to the kitchen.
The Inn at Little Washington Restaurant
The Inn’s founder, Patrick O’Connell, is self taught chef and pioneered farm-to-table food before it was a thing. Known as the “Pope of Refined American Cuisine,” he has cooked for Queen Elizabeth, several presidents, and is the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the James Beard Association. The Inn has been called one of the top ten in the world, and evidently, one of the best restaurants in America.
Dinner at the Inn is the main event and it’s worth the anticipation. Guests choose one of two versions of the tasting menu, both priced at $265 per person, and wine pairings are available at an extra $180 per person. Since a visit to the Inn is all about the meal, the best value can be had by purchasing an overnight package that includes dinner.
The Headliner: Our Dinner Menu
When restaurants reopened last spring with limited capacity, many owners debated how to adapt their lively dining experience. The Inn at Little Washington purchased mannequins to populate its dining room—a move that made international headlines for its ingenuity. We eagerly anticipated meeting our lifeless dining companions. Was it weird that a dozen dummies in various repose watched us? A little, but it was also a hilariously unique experience.
O’Connell maintains the view that food is theater. Thus our meal began with cocktails and a team of servers shaving fresh truffles over hot buttered popcorn. My eyes may have rolled back in my head at the first bite.
Another amuse bouche appeared. A crisp potato filled with crème fraiche and chives delivered the restaurant’s take on chips and onion dip. One thing becomes clear from the lively wait staff to the twangy country music playing on the speakers overhead: The Inn at Little Washington does not take itself too seriously.
Our Dinner Diary
My first course of carpaccio of lamb and Caesar salad ‘ice cream’ was a sublime test for all five senses, while my husband’s kingfish in red wine reduction was supremely delicious.
The second course of handmade gargenelli pasta with wild mushroom ‘bolognese’ was so hearty it was tough to believe it was vegetarian. My husband’s duck breast with figs braised in Madeira offered the perfect seasonal dish, spiced and rich, perfect for a cold winter night.
A palate cleanser of coconut sorbet with passionfruit and ginger granite was a refreshing way to prepare for the dessert course. I opted for the ‘Apparently a Pear’ one of the Inn’s signature desserts: a Trompe-l’oeil masterpiece of cinnamon pear cheesecake. It tasted as good as it looks.
Don’t forget the Cheese Whiz
My husband opted for the cheese course in lieu of something sweet. Just when we thought the drama of the evening had concluded, a moo-ing cow cart headed our way. Cameron, the Inn’s resident “Cheese Whiz” proved one of the Inn’s hidden gems. If you’re not already having a great time, a few minutes conversation with Cameron will remind you that fun is what this place is all about.
Breakfast the next morning is every bit as delicious as dinner and begins with five different freshly squeezed juices, a jar of homemade yogurt, and granola with fresh berries. Our package included full breakfast, and we both opted for the benedict, savoring every bite of the house made Virginia ham.
Our time at the Inn at Little Washington flew by way too fast. The decadence of the restaurant and Inn is not sustainable for a weeklong respite. It’s a total escape from reality for a night or two, a bucket list fantasy with bragging rights for those who love great food. I’m already dreaming of a return visit.
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