My first peek behind the curtain -- my insight as to how the Inn at Little Washington manages its magic act -- comes on my second evening.
My wife and I descend from our room for dinner, and, as she had the previous evening, a smiling staffer pins a miniature white rose to my lapel. A moment or two later, another staffer approaches to show us to our table.
"Mr. and Mrs. Davis?" he purrs.
"Actually, no," I reply. "We're the Aliases." (I employed a nom de voyage on this visit.)
I think I detect the faintest strain in his relaxed smile, but he recovers in an instant and excuses himself. The female staffer returns.
"This flower," she says smoothly, "will go better with that beautiful tie."
And she replaces my white rose with a red one.
"So why," I later ask my wife, "do you suppose I got a red flower?"
"Maybe she really did like it better with your tie," she suggests.
"Fat chance," says I. "Nothing happens by accident around here."
And you know what? Nothing does.
A month or so later, I get chef Patrick O'Connell, who owns the inn with partner Reinhardt Lynch, to break the code.
"The flowers are sort of our internal code for being able to differentiate between who is a guest in the house and who is just joining us for dinner," O'Connell says. "The red flower indicated that you were dining for the second consecutive night. So you might be spared the redundancy of having the waiter explain the menu. Plus, it's our goal to make the second night even more magical than the first."
The Inn at Little Washington, for the uninitiated, is a 14-bedroom inn in the town of Washington, Va., a National Historic District named for its surveyor, George Washington, who laid out the town in 1749. (The town is dubbed Little Washington to differentiate it from that larger city 67 miles to the east.)
It's hard to know which is the bigger draw -- the charming hotel itself, or the spectacular restaurant inside. Suffice it to say that the inn has won just about every award worth having as a restaurant as well as a hotel.
So, seeing as my 25th wedding anniversary was drawing near, I decided to experience both.
A place apart
The 80-minute drive from D.C. to Little Washington is like a trip back in time, the big city and white-collar suburbs giving way to small towns and, for the last 20 minutes or so, rolling farmland. Washington, Va., itself sits near the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and so far away from it all that your cellular phone won't work.
Consider, though, that when the inn opened 28 years ago, there wasn't even TV reception in the area. Today the inn has flat-screen TVs and a full spectrum of cable channels in every room. High-speed Internet access is available.
"The modern world is catching up," O'Connell acknowledges. "But there's still the psychological insulation the mountains provide. It's a kind of security."
Little Washington is a wee burg, with fewer than 200 people and just over a half-dozen streets to call its own. And there, at Main and Middle streets, is the inn, its wide porch festooned with flags and flowers, an attendant standing ready in the semicircle driveway.
"Bad news, folks; the kitchen's closed tonight," says a guest by the entrance as we pull up. He cackles maniacally at his joke (which I gather he has cracked more than once), takes another long pull on his stogie and ambles along.
Check-in is as smooth as can be. There's no paperwork, no fumbling for credit cards, just a warm greeting and a room key. (A real metal key, by the way, not a computer-magnetized bit of plastic.) Before being escorted to our room, we're taken to the little bar area (dubbed the Monkey Bar for its simian iconography), where we're served a white-peach Bellini. I'm loving this place already.
Although we've opted for one of the more modest rooms in the inn, the first look at our room takes our breath away. The decor borders on sensory overload, a riot of contrasting patterns and textures and colors that somehow pulls together beautifully.
I doubt there's an untreated square inch in the room. The ceilings are stenciled. The floor consists of polished wood with a large carpet in the center, inset into the floor so that the carpet and wood floor are at the same level. There are period furniture pieces here and there, a large armoire in the corner, a couple of chairs, a small sofa and a large bed. A balcony, two steps up from room level, has its own furniture and overlooks the town.
Built in 1978
It's easy to imagine past generations living and relaxing here. Except that this space, with its Colonial-looking exterior and 17th-century decor, was a gas station before O'Connell and Lynch built the inn in 1978.
"It's meant," says O'Connell, "to be a little stage, set for any play in life you want to act out. With yourself as the star, of course."
And in theory, you can produce a different "play" every time you visit, because no two rooms are decorated the same way. Indeed, some repeat guests make a point of choosing different rooms. "A good room should make you smile and intrigue you," O'Connell says. "And on your 10th visit, you should be noticing things that you didn't notice on your first."
Keeping track of the myriad service touches that the inn brings to your stay is as difficult as memorizing your room's decor. There's the Magic Ice Bucket, which is how I came to think of it, which was full of fresh ice every time we left our room for more than a half-hour. The golf-sized umbrellas waiting by the front door. The little bedside goodies late at night -- a flask of port and cookies (shaped like dog biscuits) one night, a fragrant eyeshade the next, bedside slippers both evenings. The hand-written card left in your room, announcing what the weather will be like tomorrow.
And somewhere in the surrounding countryside, I believe there's a yawning pit containing thousands of once-used hand soaps. Unwrap a fresh bar, wash your hands once, turn around twice, and I swear there's a new, wrapped bar in its place. Where do they put them all?
Patrick O'Connell is a former James Beard Outstanding Chef winner, an honor shared by such luminaries as Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters, Rick Bayless, Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter. So it is not surprising that reservations to his 80-seat restaurant are very, very hard to come by.
That is, unless you're a guest at the inn. For guests, dinner reservations are guaranteed. And not just for the best available time either. Pretty much whenever you want to dine, you may.
On our first night, having just arrived, I mention that we thought we'd dine elsewhere the first night, and save the big experience for the second. The staffers look positively stricken, as though I'd snubbed a dish they'd made just for me.
I use the inn's multicourse format -- the menu offers only four- and eight-course meals -- as my excuse. "We can't eat like that two nights in a row," I lie.
No problem, they reply. If we just want a couple of entrees and a split appetizer, fine. If we just want a few appetizers, also fine. "When you're staying with us," one staffer says in a conspiratorial tone, "we're a little more flexible. The world is your oyster."
I couldn't think of a graceful way out of that one, so two meals it was.
They were spectacular. O'Connell is a graceful chef, his style French informed but with a distinctively American accent and more than a little humor. "Follies" are what O'Connell calls his more whimsical creations.
His crab cake sandwich, for instance, an acclaimed appetizer that's featured in O'Connell's latest cookbook, consists of crab cake nestled between two disks of fried green tomatoes, skewered with a sprig of rosemary. It's a cute bit of culinary sleight of hand, but one with a terrific flavor payoff, the tomatoes' acidity brightening up the sweet crabmeat.
Similarly, there's an entree called "Tuna Pretending To Be a Filet Mignon," which comes off as a sort of crustless Wellington. The thick slab of charred tuna (still very rare in the center) is capped with a slice of duck foie gras, alongside a nest of charred onions and a tart burgundy-butter sauce. There's the mouth-feel of a tender steak and the near-liquid smoothness of the foie gras, and it's easy to forget that you're eating what is nominally a fish dish.
Thick medallions of rabbit loin are wrapped in house-cured pancetta, but what captures your attention is the fingertip-sized rabbit rib roast, bones and all, which I ate by hand like some modern-day Gulliver. A rectangular glass plate holds a seafood sampler in miniature: Upright maki rolls of soy paper and minced lobster, red snapper ceviche strewn with granules of fleur de sel, a quenelle of shredded peekytoe crab next to julienned strips of pickled watermelon rind.
Desserts are so irresistible it's best to order those that offer multiple flavors, such as the trio of miniature peach desserts -- peach melba, a tiny cake topped with a peach half the size of an egg yolk, with vanilla ice cream striped with raspberry sauce; peach cobbler, served warm in a porcelain mini-ramekin; and an intense peach-champagne sorbet decorated with a nasturtium leaf.
The trio of chocolate desserts is similarly indulgent, consisting of a Black Forest mousse bombe, chilled chocolate creme brulee and a warm bitter-chocolate souffle.
And no meal is complete without a visit from Faira, the cow-shaped cart that bears the inn's cheese selection. Faira is wheeled from table to table when bidden, and even moos on cue -- though I noticed that the mooing comes not from the cow, but from a small device concealed in the server's palm.
Typically, there are about 18 domestic and imported cheeses available, and just as typically, no one suggests you try "any three" or "any six." The cheeses you fancy are the ones you'll be served, and if you'd like to sample each and every one, that's just fine as well.
The service touches are astounding.
For starters, when my wife and I sit down to dinner that first evening, there's no need to restate our desire to eat light. Everyone seems to know, and our little break with tradition is treated as the most natural thing in the world.
"In an operation of this size," O'Connell says, "clients want very much to feel as though they're in a private home. And one unplugged or uninformed person is all it takes to ruin the illusion."
And so staffers, seemingly trained within an inch of their lives, not only know which questions to ask, but also have a system of clues that prevent them from asking certain questions at all.
Coffee service, for instance. The coffee cups are white, but the saucer for those drinking decaffeinated coffee has a slightly different configuration. When a server comes by to repour, then, there's no awkward "regular or decaf?" query. In the same way, water glasses with a faint blue tinge identify those with dietary restrictions. Attention to detail is what O'Connell, and the rest of the inn, live for.
When a party arrives for dinner, it is assigned a mood indicator, ranging from 1 (seriously upset) to 10 (ecstatic). The customers are unaware of the number, but it exists, entered into a computer and tracked throughout the evening, with the goal being to bring that table to a 9 or better.
"At a typical restaurant, the waiter tells the staff, 'Don't go near table 14; they're cranky, but it has nothing to do with us,' " O'Connell says. "It has everything to do with us. Even if something is occurring which took place prior to their arrival, we cannot ignore it, for it will have bearing on the experience."
And so the staff works to determine what's wrong, and gently smoothes those rough edges. "In general, people are so touched by the fact that we care, that we're not going to avoid it," O'Connell says. "Everyone needs and wishes to tell their story; they haven't stopped by simply because they're hungry."
And eventually everyone, the cranky and the exuberant, goes into the kitchen to meet the chef himself, an affable presence in those trademark spotted chef's pants -- an homage to the inn's Dalmatians, Pearl and JoBe, who can be glimpsed on the property from time to time (Pearl is the one wearing the string of pearls).
O'Connell shows off his custom-made Vulcan oven, his computerized combination oven (both added in a multimillion-dollar makeover six years ago), his induction burners whose surfaces never get hot ("I used to demonstrate this with $100 bills." O'Connell jokes, "but nobody has $100 bills anymore."). He hears the guest's stories ("Some of them can be overwhelming," he says). They connect.
So that's the Inn at Little Washington. Part country retreat, part theatrical production. Part fine-dining destination, part therapy and wellness center.
"Anyone who's worked here," says O'Connell, "realizes this ain't no restaurant."
Phil Vettel writes for the Chicago Tribune.
WHEN YOU GO
From Washington, D.C., to Washington, Va. (commonly known as "Little Washington"), by car is usually a little less than two hours.
Where to stay
The Inn at Little Washington, Middle and Main streets, Washington, VA 22747. 540-675-3800; theinnatlittlewashington.com
Dinner reservations are guaranteed to overnight guests. Even so, you'll want to book well in advance, because the inn's 14 rooms (plus three separate guesthouses) fill up quickly, especially on weekends. (Reservations accepted up to a year ahead.)
Room rates begin at $370 for a standard room and scale up to $890 for the Mayor's House, a guesthouse that boasts two fireplaces and a private garden. There's also a two-bedroom President's Retreat, in a Victorian farmhouse on a private estate ($1,100-$2,400).
Those are the base prices. On top of those, add $75 for a Sunday-night stay, $145 for Friday nights and $245 for Saturday nights. On top of that, add $100 for any night in May or October. You'll have to call for holiday rates. Room rate includes breakfast and afternoon tea service.
The inn serves a four-course menu priced at $138 Sunday-Thursday, $148 Friday and $168 Saturday. An eight-course tasting menu, at $138-$178 (depending on the day), is also available. In addition, there are two kitchen tables, each seating up to six guests. There is an additional charge of $300 to reserve either table.
What to see and do
There are any number of attractions within driving distance of the inn. Chief among them is Skyline Drive, a 105-mile scenic drive that snakes through Shenandoah National Park. There are numerous overlooks where you can park and gape at nature.
The closest entrance to the inn is Thornton Gap, and from there you can head north for a 30-mile meander to the drive's northernmost point. Don't feel you have to take it all in on one trip; the $10 entrance fee is valid for admission for seven consecutive days.
Luray Caverns are good for those who crave a good hike and who packed a light jacket (it gets cold down below). It's about 10 minutes west of the Thornton Gap entrance. And it's the home of the world's only "stalacpipe" organ.
The Inn at Little Washington offers picnic baskets, priced about $75 (which includes wine), for those who intend to spend the day away from the inn. (There is no formal lunch at the inn, but a light menu is available through room service.)