Exploring Washington, Virginia

The capital's small-town sibling has big-town charms, including a Michelin-starred restaurant and inn.

Washingtonians love to be wired, fast and furious. But there’s another Washington just an hour-and-a-half drive from D.C. where you’re forced to go slow and where stress—and cell phone reception—melts away. In Washington, Virginia—and, in fact, in all of Rappahannock County, for which the town serves as county seat—you won’t find traffic stop lights or cineplexes. You will, however, discover plenty of meandering country roads and sunsets dramatic enough to win an Oscar. 

Washington Town Hall

This tiny town (population: about 150) in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains was the first in the nation to be named for George Washington. The 17-year-old surveyor and future president arrived in 1749 and laid out a five-block by two-block town grid that remains today. 

The biggest Washington of them all—the nation’s capital—may seem a total opposite to this little Washington, but in addition to the G.W. connection, there is one thing a visitor can count on in both places: a great place to eat. 

The acclaimed Inn at Little Washington, which sits on the corner of Main and Middle streets, transformed the historic rural town into a destination dining spot, with guests traveling from all over the world to enjoy chef/proprietor Patrick O’Connell’s unique brand of creative American cuisine and playful hospitality. 

O’Connell founded the Inn 40 years ago in a former gas station, taking the place from motor oil to truffle oil. Along the way, he’s garnered numerous accolades, including three Michelin stars and was creating Instagrammable moments before that was even a thing. Popcorn sprinkled with shaved black truffle arrives in a familiar red-and-white-striped movie popcorn box. A peach-filled cake looks so much like a fresh peach, with its chocolate stem and marzipan leaf and hand-painted orange skin, that my first instinct is to pick it up and take a juicy bite. 

“We've always believed that The Inn should offer a feast for the eyes as well as for the stomach,” O’Connell tells me. “I'm a visual person and see the experience we offer as being much like a film with the guest playing the starring role. Everything the guest sees must enhance the overall picture. I spend much of my time editing out anything I don't want to see in the film. However, most importantly, the food must always be delicious, sensual and satisfying.” 

The Inn at Little Washington

The Inn’s attractions extend beyond the dining room. A seasonal farmers market on Saturday mornings offers the Inn’s own pickled cucumbers, jams and granola in addition to home goods, microgreens, jewelry and more from local vendors and artisans. Back at the Inn, a well-tended garden bursts with an ever-changing variety of produce, from poha berries to edible pentas flowers. Pay a visit to the Inn’s goats, sheep and chickens before dropping some cash at the gift shop (housed in the Old Tavern dating from 1735) and relaxing in the courtyard next to the koi pond. And, of course, you can spend the night in one of 24 dramatically decorated rooms, each named after an influential chef or food-world personality. 

Village Market

The spectacular success of the Inn has inspired other ventures here. Down the street from the Inn, I take part in a tasting session that pairs jewel-like chocolate truffles with small-batch wines from boutique wineries, including Little Washington Winery. Nearby, R.H. Ballard sells an eclectic collection of luxe housewares and gifts such as Laguiole knives and Tuscan stoneware. Second Saturday is a monthly countywide event featuring local artists and galleries. Stained glass artist Patricia Brennan offers exclusively to Inn guests workshops in stained glass, fused jewelry, mosaics, and garden stepping stones. 

R.H. Ballard

Just outside town, there are wineries, breweries, and Shenandoah National Park with its more than 500 miles of hiking trails. 

Despite little Washington’s slow pace and old-fashioned graces, things aren’t static here. The White Moose Inn opened in 2014, bringing a stripped-down, hipster aesthetic that stands at polar opposites to O’Connell’s place. O’Connell himself is opening a café catty-corner from the Inn at Little Washington. “There will always be room for growth and improvement,” he says. “The glorious thing about our business is that you never ever arrive. You have to enjoy the journey more than the goal.” 

Maybe little Washington has more in common with capital Washington than we thought.

Amy Alipio
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