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Chef Patrick O’Connell in the kitchen at the Inn at Little Washington

Star power

Julia Child’s spirit lives on at the Inn at Little Washington

How good is this three-star Michelin marvel? Democrats and Republicans are willing to put aside their differences when they pick up their forks.

Three Michelin stars . . . in a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. But for decades, the Inn at Little Washington has drawn the chauffeured swells of DC to the Shenandoah foothills to revel in French haute cuisine and pray at the altar of its high priestess/inspiration Julia Child.

Forty-five years ago, when the man behind it all, Patrick O’Connell, was a young rural transplant cooking his way through Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking on a wood burning stove in a cabin, the landscape didn’t look terribly different than it does now. Today, the town of Washington—population 84—is the home of O’Connell’s restaurant and correspondingly luxuriously 23-room hotel. 

With its chintz wallpaper-heavy interiors and wood burning fireplace (burning merrily away despite the 80 degree heat), Little Washington’s aesthetic is a marriage of country club, posh retirement home and lived-in stately manor—not to mention a living history museum akin to Colonial Williamsburg. 

The outside of The Inn at Little Washington
Over the years, the Inn—which, in 2019, was awarded three Michelin stars—has drawn both the DC set and Hollywood glitterati. Photo courtesy of The Inn at Little Washington

Over the years, the Inn has hosted a storied DC set. Baggy-suited Clinton staffers made this their spot in the 1990s. The Reagans came by helicopter and decoy helicopter. Andrea Mitchell and her husband, former head of the Fed Alan Greenspan, celebrate their anniversary here every year, and Naomi Biden and her husband started coming  not long after their White House wedding. Judge Alito is here on the regular, and Hollywood glitterati like Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds have made the pilgrimage. At one point, Barbra Streisand dropped by for lunch—even though the restaurant doesn’t serve lunch. They served it to Streisand.

Ryan Reynolds and BlakeLively
Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively had a late-night dinner at the Inn shortly after their 2012 wedding. Photo by Gotham/GC Images
Barbra Streisand and James Brolin at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in 2019
Barbra Streisand stopped by for lunch—which the Inn doesn’t typically serve. Photo by Kevin Mazur/VF19/WireImage

How to seat the guests is the constant dance of the dining room. Men are given white carnations to pin to their lapels—or red ones if they’re a returning guest. With so many people driving in from DC, one wonders if the carnations might be better used to note political affiliation and therefore avoid any awkwardness in the dining room. But for a political hot spot, the Inn at Little Washington does its best to be distinctly neutral.

Word is that while First Lady Melania Trump wanted to dine here, her husband didn’t want to deviate from his usual diet of burgers and fries. A note from her office offering congratulations on the Inn’s 40th anniversary hangs by the bathroom. So does a picture and letter from Queen Elizabeth II, who never came to the Inn but was served Chef O’Connell’s cuisine at the Virginia Governor’s Mansion.

Nancy and Ronald Reagan attend Father's Day Party on June 17, 1990 at Chasen's Restaurant in Beverly Hills, California.
The Reagans came to the Inn by helicopter—and decoy helpcopter. Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
(L-R) Judy Woodruff, Andrea Mitchell, Alan Greenspan and Barbara Cochran, at the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation Awards Dinner on March 11, 2004 in Washington DC.
Andrea Mitchell and her husband, former head of the Fed Alan Greenspan (center), celebrate their anniversary in the restaurant every year. Photo by Stephen Boitano/Getty Images
Naomi and Finnegan Biden
Presidential granddaughter Naomi Biden (left, with sister Finnegan) and her husband started coming not long after their White House wedding in 2022. Photo by David Benthal/BFA.com

It’s intentionally dark in the dining room. Fringed lamps hang low over the dining tables entering the line of vision of the diner. Are they obscuring you from noticing who might be sitting in the corner? Probably not. But the darkness and shade convey the idea that someone important, someone with a black SUV out front, someone with a body man with a small discreet earpiece, is sitting just behind you.

But the solemnity of Important People Chewing does not diminish the festiveness of the place. The menu items have cheeky names (“A tin of sin” is how the caviar with peekytoe crab and cucumber rillette is described); the Inn’s resident cheese expert—the Maître du Fromage—pushes a trolley that in France might be an elegant yet utilitarian cheese cart. Here is a cart shaped like a cow that audibly moos. The Maître du Fromage makes sure you know his cheeses are “udderly delicious.”

Main dining room at The Inn at Little Washington
Little Washington’s aesthetic is a marriage of country club, posh retirement home and lived-in stately manor. Photo courtesy of The Inn at Little Washington
The Maître du Fromage at The Inn at Little Washington
The Maître du Fromage—the Inn’s resident cheese expert—brings his wares to the table via a cart shaped like a cow, and makes sure you know they are “udderly delicious.” Photo courtesy of The Inn at Little Washington

Three or four courses at The Little Inn will set you back $350–400, before beverages (though prices are not listed online. . . I mean, if you have to ask. . .) A man at a table near me proclaims the fourth course, the Chartreuse of Savor Cabbage and Maine Lobster with Caviar Beurre Blanc, the best thing he’s ever eaten. “Best evers” and “best in my life” are not uncommon here. Here is a place to plan your last meal. Your best meal. The one you’ll dream about at home, talk about at your office, brag about to a friend.

The darkness and shade convey the idea that someone important, someone with a black SUV out front, someone with a body man with a small discreet earpiece, is sitting just behind you. 

What will you eat when you drive back home to Pittsburg or fly home to Florida? Or in my case, to (big) Washington. Because as Chef O’Connell points out, even in the nation’s capital, which has come a long way from its meat and potatoes roots, there are still over 50 steakhouses. Fifty steakhouses for the population of roughly 700,000, and not one Maître du Fromage in sight.

Hero photo of Patrick O’Connell courtesy of The Inn at Little Washington

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