3 stars, 40 years: Va. chef celebrates coveted Michelin status

A 40-year dream is now a reality for one local chef (WTOP's Rachel Nania)

WASHINGTON — Patrick O’Connell waited 40 years for the call, and on Thursday, Sept. 13, it finally happened.

His restaurant, The Inn at Little Washington, just received the highest and most-coveted rating in the culinary world: three stars from the Michelin Guide. And ever since that call, O’Connell’s phone has not stopped ringing.

“I was getting calls at 4:30 this morning from Europe,” said O’Connell, who opened The Inn in the small town of Washington, Virginia, in 1978.

“It’s amazing, really, the reach of the Michelin Guide. The international reach is like nothing else in the world.”

When O’Connell, a D.C. native and self-taught chef, had the idea to open a restaurant, he decided to do so in a former auto repair shop in Virginia’s Shenandoah countryside. He and his partner rented the space for $200 a month, and later purchased the property to begin building one of the most well-respected dining destinations.

“[At the time], it was not part of American culture to drive outside the city into a beautiful region of the country and expect to find dining comparable to what they get downtown,” O’Connell said.

He was determined to change that. In the restaurant’s first few years, O’Connell made several trips to Europe, seeking out some of its best and highest-rated restaurants in rural settings.

“We really established a benchmark and galvanized a direction, and bet on the idea that if it could happen there, ultimately one day, it might be able to happen in our own country,” he said, calling his 40-year journey a “complete circle.”

The Michelin Guide has been reviewing and rating restaurants throughout the world since the early 1900s, but just made its way to D.C. in 2016. In its first two editions, The Inn at Little Washington received two stars — which denotes “excellent cooking, worth a detour — along with D.C.-based Pineapple and Pearls and Minibar.

Its most recent status makes The Inn the first, and only, three-star restaurant in the D.C. Guide. O’Connell said he has always been hungry for that third star, and this past year, he and his team “went into overdrive” to get it.

“We tried to look critically at everything we were doing, everything we were presenting and upgrade it. And we really made it a goal, our collective mission, to push as hard as we can push,” he said.

“It’s also is a wonderful illustration that it has nothing to do, or very little to do, with one person. One person may have the vision, but it’s the hard work, dedication, and sort of collaboration of an entire army of people.”

O’Connell said The Inn at Little Washington’s three-star status won’t change anything about the restaurant. Guests can still expect a cow trolley that doubles as the cheese cart, a dining room that doesn’t have a dress code — although O’Connell has one apparel rule: no wet bikinis — and a cuisine that’s reflective of The Inn’s sense of place.

“Most importantly, we have to be authentic and comfortable in who we are and proud of who we are, and not try to be something we’re not,” he said.

“For us, it’s always been a goal to make the experience here feel like a wonderful dinner party at a great friend’s house in the countryside who had good taste and a staff of 158.”

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