Take a Peek Inside the Inn at Little Washington

Patrick O'Connell's acclaimed inn has been a culinary destination for decades. The design also has a story to tell.
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The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia, will open to the public for a house and garden tour on Sept. 12. (Photo courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington)

It’s landed on countless “best restaurants” lists for elevated dishes like lobster mousse with caviar beurre blanc and seared duck breast with brandied peaches. But the luxe setting is also a big part of the experience at the storied Inn at Little Washington. To celebrate its 45th year, proprietor chef Patrick O’Connell is offering the public a House and Garden Tour next month.

On Sept. 12, visitors can walk where celebrities like Julia Child, Warren Beatty and Annette Bening have stayed and dined, and take a rare look at much of the inn’s 26-acre campus, which includes 18th-century buildings, 23 guest rooms and cottages, gardens, a farm, Patty O’s Cafe and Bakery, and, of course, Virginia’s only three Michelin-starred restaurant.

“I think Washingtonians tend to think of us still as a restaurant,” says O’Connell, 78. “This [tour] was a way of illustrating that, over these many years, it’s become far more than just a place to eat.”

Here’s a look at what he calls “a collaborative art exhibit” that brought together artists, woodworkers, architects and historians to transform the historic town of Washington, 67 miles from Arlington.

Main Inn Rainbow

The Inn’s main building was originally constructed in 1905. (Photo courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington)

Situated at Main and Middle streets, the inn was once a gas station and automobile repair shop with an adjoining junkyard before O’Connell and his then-partner, Reinhardt Lynch, began renting half of the space for $200 a month in 1978. O’Connell has been the sole owner since 2007.

This photo shows how the Main Building, which was the garage, looks today. Originally constructed in 1905, it has a clapboard facade cut to look like stone.

“This is the exact treatment that George Washington used on Mount Vernon,” O’Connell says. “It was typical among the colonists because they didn’t have granite and they didn’t have stone cutters, but they had woodworkers who could make wood look like stone.”

The gold building to the left dates to 1740 and was the town’s tavern where Washington danced. Now, it houses five of the inn’s shops.

The Dining Room At The Inn At Little Washington

The dining room at the Inn at Little Washington is cozy, luxurious and elegant. (Photo courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington)

The tapestry in the dining room was woven in Oxford, England, and then aged at the inn, where the fabric was laid in a field and sprayed with tea. “[It] creates a nice scene in the room and also offers a little cushion for any noise,” O’Connell says.

The tray ceiling is an homage to the painted ceilings of Italian villas he’s long admired. “This is actually a wallpaper that’s been altered and cut up into a collage,” he says.

But it’s the lighting that may be the most important element. “When we began 45 years ago, our lighting was willow baskets that had been in the shape of lampshades. The effect was so wonderful in that everybody had their own sort of cocoon and the food was well illuminated, which I think is so important. We work so hard to create a masterpiece on every plate, you have to clearly see it,” O’Connell says.

The Living Room

The ornate living room was at one time the kitchen. (Photo courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington)

The inn’s living room was originally the restaurant’s first kitchen before O’Connell gutted it to create this space. The painted silk Fortuny chandeliers were made in Venice, and the floor was transplanted from a 400-year-old chateau in France. Before it was removed from its original home, the flooring pieces were meticulously numbered and bundled to be reassembled in the same pattern at the inn.

“The ceiling is an elaborate treatment of linen panels hand painted and crinkled to look like old leather,” O’Connell adds, “and the entire ceiling is gold leafed.”

The Conservatory At The Inn At Little Washington

The sunny conservatory has the feel of an indoor garden. (Photo courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington)

The glass conservatory was built recently, but “the hope was that this room would look as if it’s been there a very long time,” O’Connell says. “This is how it looks in the afternoon at tea. We serve tea to all our arriving guests.”

The plants were grown on the property, which has five gardeners and two farmers, plus two full-time florists who handle the inn’s flower arrangements.

The distinctive umbrellas were made in Bali from a William Morris fabric that was previously featured in the main dining room. “At night, this whole room is lit by a theater set designer,” says the chef. “There are special filters over the lights to create a spiderweb effect that makes it look as if the light is filtering down through the trees.”

The New Kitchen At The Inn At Little Washington

A self-taught chef, Inn founder and owner Patrick O’Connell has authored three books and won a National Humanities Medal in 2020. (Photo courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington)

“The kitchen was an addition that we added to the original building later as we acquired the property around us,” O’Connell says. “The idea was to create a contemporary kitchen that looks as if it had been there 100 years.”

The range that anchors the space was made by La Cornue, a French company that has been manufacturing them for 100-plus years, and has a red baked enamel surface on the sides and refrigerators built in next to the ovens. The hood over the range is copper and brass and weighs thousands of pounds, O’Connell says.

Joyce Evans, a London stage and set designer (she also designed the inn’s guest rooms) helped design the kitchen, which he has said was inspired by one at Windsor Castle. “The goal was to make it appear at one with the rest of the interiors even though it’s a commercial kitchen,” he says.

A dining nook in the back corner is reserved for guests who wish to eat kitchenside and watch the culinary action.

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The view from the Colonial Ballroom patio (Photo courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington)

On this patio at the rear of the Colonial Ballroom, the inn hosts special events such as weddings. Beyond the shrubs is what the staff calls “the Field of Dreams”—an area home to the inn’s vegetable garden and farm. The inn also has a cherry orchard and greenhouses.

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The inn’s boxwood garden has a fountain in the center. (Photo courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington)

Located near the main inn and the presidential cottage, a low, manicured garden with boxwoods and a fountain at the center provides visitors with a place to meander or sit and talk.

The Inn At Little Washington

The Presidential Cottage foyer (Photo courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington)

The Presidential Cottage is a separate house across from the boxwood garden. The building was re-imagined by Allan Greenberg, an architect who also designed the State Department’s 24 diplomatic reception rooms and the offices of the secretary of State. “He is able to build in a way that [makes it] very difficult to discern what is old and what is newly built. This was an undistinguished little house in the town, and we were able to raise the roof and add this staircase inside,” O’Connell says.

Set designer Evans, with whom O’Connell has partnered for 40 years on the inn’s frequent transformations, designed the cottage interiors. “The wood in the floor is from repurposed slave houses and its beams were sawn and bleached,” says the chef. “What you see is a little example of faux graining, which is done by a sixth-generation faux grainer…[who] came here to do Mount Vernon. This faux wood was a favorite technique of George Washington’s.”

A bedroom features Scalamandré wallpaper and fabrics. (Photo courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington)

Inspired by the 19th century Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island, this bedroom in the Presidential Cottage is painted painted to look like marble. The ceiling is wallpaper from Scalamandré set into a panel. (Originally founded by an Italian immigrant to America in 1929, Scalamandré and Stark Fabric & Wallcovering partnered in 2017 to create The House of Scalamandré.)

“Most of the fabrics we have in all the buildings are from either Brunschwig [and Fils] or Scalamandré,” O’Connell says. “A lot of them are historic French hand-loomed special fabrics that are very hard to find these days. Many of them were sent from London.”

The floors in this room are also sawn planks reclaimed from former quarters for enslaved people. They were bleached and pickled to create a white cast, he says.

Hand-painted bathroom tiles in the Mayor’s House (Photo courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington)

This bathroom is in the Mayor’s House—so named because it was once the country home of the mayor of the town of Washington, Virginia, although the original cottage dates to 1740. Today, the two-story house has a formal sitting area, guest room and master bedroom. The bathroom is decorated in hand-painted Portuguese tiles and Delft tiles made by an artist in California, O’Connell says.

The Main Building’s Phyllis Room is an homage to former Washington Post food critic Phyllis Richman. (Photo courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington)

The Main Building has 11 hotel rooms, including two bi-level suites, many named after noteworthy figures in American culinary history. The Phyllis is a “superior room” named after longtime Washington Post dining critic Phyllis Richman, who wrote one of the first positive reviews of the inn.

“In every room, you see a different example of the grainers’ different styles of wood,” O’Connell says. “This one is painted to resemble rosewood and everything below the chair rail is done in random-width planked pine,” creating “a French lodge kind of mood in the room.”

The ceiling, adorned with Scalamandré wallpaper, is an intentional part of each room’s design. “Ceilings are very important to us and to our design person in England,” says the proprietor, “because it is the first thing you see when you wake up and the last thing you see when you fall asleep.”

Room 6, Inn At Little Washington

A large round mirror creates an echo chamber effect for the chandeliers in this renovated suite. (Photo courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington)

This recently renovated suite, also in the Main Building, used to be two rooms. Now, it’s one larger room with two bathrooms. Pocket doors built into the frame of the archway slide out so that the room in the foreground can become a second bedroom. “It has that wonderful circular mirror over the bed that makes a kind of echo chamber with the chandeliers,” O’Connell says.

A bathroom in the Thomas Keller suite features old mirrors and gold leaf. (Photo courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington)

This bathroom in the main building is part of a two-story suite named after chef and cookbook author Thomas Keller, who earned seven Michelin stars across three properties. “It’s all done in old mirror in a Venetian style with columns and lots of gold leaf and a wonderful painted tub,” O’Connell says.

The sunroom off a junior suite in the Carter House (Photo courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington)

Carter House, a building dating to 1850 and named after the family who lived there originally, has three accommodations, including a large suite with a private garden. This sunroom is part of Room 14, a junior suite on the second floor. The pattern of the peacock feather wallpaper extends into the draperies. “We had a local artist paint the floor,” says O’Connell. “It’s a wood floor but painted in wonderful little checks.”

The French doors behind the huge soaking tub look out to a formal garden. (Photo courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington)

The soaking tub is the centerpiece of the bathroom of the Carter House Suite, which has a bedroom and separate living room, too. The French doors open to a formal garden. “When the weather is just right, you can sit and soak in the tub and look at a very beautiful garden,” O’Connell says.

The bathroom in the main building suite has a garden theme. (Photo courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington)

Back in the main building, this bathroom is part of a junior suite named after famed chef, writer and culinary educator Jacques Pepin. “It has a garden theme with hand painted [floral] tiles,” O’Connell says, adding that the awning is also hand-painted. “It’s intended to feel as if you’re visiting someone’s private home in the country, probably in Europe, or England or Ireland.”

Patty O’s Cafe and Bakery has a more casual feel than the other inn spaces. (Photo courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington)

O’Connell opened Patty O’s Cafe and Bakery in 2021 in another building that had been a garage. The beams are painted by the same grainer who worked on the other spaces, and all of the artwork—still lifes of fruits and vegetables—was created by local artists. A play on his childhood nickname, Patty O’s does not require reservations, unlike the inn.

Now that you’ve had a look around this decadent restaurant/hotel/art gallery/museum, take note that it’s about to change. O’Connell has acquired more properties and is working with the town on approvals for plans to transform the inn yet again. This time, the proposed changes include creating a secluded courtyard and adding an outdoor pool, a spa, 10 more guest rooms, and a 24-seat table in the wine cellar.

“It’s been a four-decades-long labor of love and passion and enjoyment,” O’Connell says.

Tickets for the Sept. 12 House and Garden Tour cost $45 and are available now. 

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