A Taste for Hospitality

The Inn at Little Washington, famous for its cuisine, also knows how to take perfect care of its guests.

December 11, 2005|By PHIL VETTEL | PHIL VETTEL,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON, VA. — WASHINGTON, VA.

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."

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