The Big News in 'little' Washington, Va., Is the Inn Place That Has Gourmets Clamoring for Five-Star Fare

updated 07/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, at the intersection of Middle and Main Streets in the sleepy (pop. 250) town of Washington, Va., sits an unpretentious white clapboard building. On Sunday mornings, the church parking lot across the street is filled with pickup trucks and station wagons, but during the rest of the week stretch limos jockey for position with Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs. There is no sign outside the simple three-story building, but then again the Inn at Little Washington doesn't need a sign.

For a dozen years now, travel and food writers have been salivating in a frenzy of adjectival excess as they sing the Inn's praises. "A jewel so perfect and beguiling that Cupid himself must applaud," rhapsodizes one; "A magnificent obsession in which every aspect is a triumph of extraordinary talent and imagination," gushes another. Raves a third: "One of the most splendiferous..." You get the idea.

The proprietors of this Shenandoah Shangri-la are Reinhardt Lynch and Patrick O'Connell. Lynch runs the day-today operation of the Inn, while O'Connell assembles the culinary creations that are the Inn's centerpiece. It's a winning combination; the gracious but reserved Lynch serves as a counterpoint for the engaging O'Connell. "This is a team of the artist and the businessman," says Lynch. "You can ask Patrick what somebody ate a year ago, and he'll be able to tell you in great detail. Ask him how much business we did a year ago, and he doesn't have a clue." Here's a clue for you, Patrick: The Inn has received as many as 3,000 requests for their 65 seats for Saturday-night dinner.

O'Connell, 44, claims to be a self-taught chef, but perhaps he is forgetting his high school stint as a short-order cook in his hometown of Clinton, Md. He attended Catholic University in Washington. D.C., where, in 1970, he met Lynch, 42, an Indiana University graduate and native Hoosier who had come to the nation's capital as a conscientious objector and worked in a hospital. Two years later O'Connell and Lynch bought a 100-acre farm bordering Virginia's Shenandoah National Park. They supported themselves by running a catering business that grew so rapidly that "it was either refrigerated trucks or let the customers come to us," says Lynch.

After a six-year search for the right site, O'Connell and Lynch rented a ramshackle turn-of-the-century building in "little" Washington (67 miles from "big" Washington) that had served as a gas station, dance hall, stage and basketball court. With a part-time kitchen helper as the only staff, they opened the restaurant in January 1978, serving 70 diners the first weekend. On the second weekend, a D.C. restaurant critic visited and in print promptly proclaimed the Inn the best eatery within a 150-mile radius of the city. The accolades have been pouring in ever since, the most recent being elevation to five stars in the Mobil Travel Guide, the first and only time in its 34-year history the guide has bestowed such an honor on an inn.

Decorated by an English stage-set designer, the 10-room inn is awash in flounces and ruffles of chintz, lace and taffeta. The staff of 55 attends to the most minute detail. Leave a slightly worn-down pencil on your bedside table, and it will be sharpened while you are at breakfast. Romance is the Inn's stock-in-trade. Some 25 small weddings have taken place there, and several sets of honeymooners check in every week. There is also plenty of bended-knee activity, with engagement rings buried in bowls of cherries or hidden in tea cozies. Free love it's not; rooms run as high as $490 a night, and prix fixe dinners go for $88 on Saturday.

Like all innkeepers, Lynch and O'Connell have their share of horror stories—be it meals cooked by flashlight during a power failure or the long-planned party for the International Food and Wine Society, when the town's water system broke down. Then there was the night in 1985 when Lynch and O'Connell were driving in separate cars to their farm 17 miles away. First, Reinhardt hit a deer, and then minutes later, as O'Connell was driving his injured partner to the hospital, they hit another deer. Both of them ended up in the emergency room with cuts and abrasions. Two months later, the pair bought the 19th-century house two doors down from the Inn, thus eliminating the hazardous commute.

Lynch and O'Connell have parlayed their life savings of $5,000 into a combined net worth of more than $3 million, but they are showing no signs of slowing down. "We're victims of our own success," says Lynch. The Inn is closed on Tuesdays, which Lynch laughingly calls their "day off," but he and O'Connell usually tend to maintenance matters before heading into (the other) Washington to shop and swim, concluding with dinner at a favorite Chinese restaurant.

Admitted perfectionists, Lynch and O'Connell look on their inn as a work-in-progress, one they are constantly trying to improve upon. "There's no right way, no formula," says O'Connell. "There's nothing but struggle and constant refinement. We always have the daily disaster or three, but when it all works," he says, "it's pure magic."

—Mark Donovan, Maria Wilhelm in Washington, Va.

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