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Weekend Planner

The inn that started it all

Two men's dream brought new life to a Virginia town

Email|Print| Text size + By Beth D'Addono
Globe Correspondent / May 31, 2006

WASHINGTON, Va. -- When Patrick O'Connell and Reinhardt Lynch opened the Inn at Little Washington in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1979, the locals didn't exactly welcome them with open arms.

Once the last gas stop before Shenandoah National Park , this western Virginia town of fewer than 200 residents was literally bypassed when Highway 211 was expanded in the early 1960s. Then along came two men from Washington, D.C., with the idea of opening a restaurant, literally in the middle of nowhere. The fact that O'Connell and Lynch have built the inn into one of the most lauded dining and hospitality experiences not just in the United States but in the world speaks volumes about their passion and commitment to their dream.

``The town was at least 30 years behind the times," O'Connell said of those early days. ``Television reception was nonexistent. The town was cut off from the rest of the world by the mountains."

O'Connell, a self-taught chef, and Lynch put every cent they had saved into opening the Inn at Little Washington. At first it was a restaurant that shared space with a craft shop; then they bought the building and added 14 rooms, creating the first establishment to receive AAA's Five Diamond Award. There isn't an honor the inn hasn't won, including five James Beard Awards , a Wine Spectator Grand Award for its 15,000-bottle cellar, and five stars from the Mobil Travel Guide . As soon as the first review hit The Washington Post , the ``outsiders," as they were called locally, started arriving. Soon the likes of Craig Claiborne of The New York Times and culinary doyenne Julia Child came to call.

As the inn's star rose, so did the town's. Real estate prices spiraled. In the late 1980s, a 2.5 percent meal and lodging tax was levied, which now accounts for 80 percent of the town's budget -- 90 percent of that total comes from the inn. Bed-and-breakfasts sprang up, fed by the inn's overflow.

``Anybody who thinks this town would be doing as well as it is without the inn is kidding themselves," said Gary Schwartz , who along with his wife, Michelle , runs Heritage House Bed & Breakfast, one of three local B&Bs to which the inn refers clientele. ``We're on the map because of the inn," agreed John MacPherson , who runs another well-regarded B&B, Foster Harris House, in town. The MacPhersons left their corporate jobs and moved here from Laguna Beach, Calif., a few years ago after choosing the area over Napa for their B&B and cycling-tour business. ``We wanted to be in a viticulture area with a good climate that would attract a certain type of client."

While people usually come for the inn, Washington and the surrounding Rappahannock County also have much to offer. The only one of the more than 30 Washingtons in the United States that was surveyed by the Founding Father (in 1749 when he was 17), Washington was the site of a Confederate hospital during the Civil War. Civil War history is one draw, another is the county's wine trail, along with a small but respectable arts scene, local working farms, and antiques shops. Virginia's wine industry has flourished in recent years. In 1979, six wineries (producing wine that was not famous for its high quality) operated in the state. Today, some 100 wineries dot the landscape, and Virginia is the fifth-largest wine producer in the country. With passionate small family wineries that focus on handcrafted wines and talented French, South African, and Italian winemakers who have relocated to Virginia to take advantage of the area's climate, the state now garners respect, with many wines earning high marks in Wine Spectator.

Nature lovers will revel in Washington's beautiful setting. Lush rolling hills, picturesque horse farms, and winding country roads are the perfect antidote to too much civilization. The area is also a hiking and cycling paradise, located just minutes from Skyline Drive , with a warren of hiking trails and breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Whether you come to hike, bike, shop, or just sit in a rocking chair, don't leave Washington without having dinner at the Inn at Little Washington. Perfect for a special occasion, O'Connell's cooking is sumptuous, an imaginative take on American cuisine that is anchored by the best ingredients, many of them local. Best of all, O'Connell is a firm believer that dining well shouldn't be an intimidating experience. Hence the menu's many surprises, including signature dishes such as Pennsylvania rabbit braised in local cider and served with grits souffle and wild mushrooms, and pepper-crusted tuna ``pretending to be a filet mignon." The cheese course arrives in a cow-shaped cart named Faira -- nothing stuffy about that.

The level of service is stunning. Servers are not allowed to say no, and each guest is assigned a mood number, from 1 to 10, with the goal to get everybody in the 9 zone before the evening's end. With prices around $200 a person (without wine), this is certainly a big night out, but as guests leave the dining room, it's not uncommon to hear them discussing when they'll be back.

Asked when he felt he and O'Connell had truly been accepted by the locals, Lynch didn't hesitate. In 2002, he said, ``when we were named Citizens of the Year of Rappahannock County." The honor lauded the pair for their contributions to the community, region, and state. ``That award is the one that means the most to us," O'Connell said.

Contact Beth D'Addono, a freelance writer in Belmont Hills, Pa., at bethdaddono@comcast.net.

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