Almost a Dream Come True

Jul. 17th 2013

After we finished at Caledonia Farm 1812, Tamara and Sam decided to head back to Fredericksburg. I knew that we weren’t too far from Washington, Virginia, so I decided to head there instead.


Washington, Virginia is a tiny village in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This town is a National Historic Landmark and has been called “Little Washington” since the 1800s so it could be distinguished from Washington DC which is less than 70 miles away. This town, which is more like an English village than a town has less than 150 people in its population which includes two horses, one llama, a flock of sheep and a dozen chickens who live in an ornate chicken house with stained glass windows in the Historic District. The history and architecture has landed this town in the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.


Today there are 28 different “Washingtons” in the United States, but in July 1749, Little Washington was laid out by a young surveyor with the assistance of two chain men in the same five blocks by two block grid that still exists today. In his journal, the young surveyor wrote, “In the Blue Ridge Mountains… I laid off a town.” That young surveyor was a 17 year old George Washington. Officially being established by the Virginia Assembly in 1796 makes this town of Washington the first of all Washingtons.



While quaint, this town is also the site of one of my dream Inns. I have long dreamed about and aspired to be like this Inn. Created in 1987 by Patrick O’Connell, the Inn at Little Washington had its humble beginnings as a car garage. But to see it today, you would never know! Chef O’Connell is one of the chefs that I have longed wanted to be like. I have both of his cook books, “The Inn at Little Washington” and “Refine American Cuisine: The Inn at Little Washington” and I cook from them quite often. But to hear his story is just amazing!

Chef O’Connell was not a classically trained chef. He began his training at fifteen in a neighborhood restaurant in Washington DC. In the 60s, he spent a year traveling Europe where he realized the “potential for artistic fulfillment as a chef” He saw in Europe how chefs were treated differently than in the United States at the time. They were treated more as performing artist or athletes.

After returning to the United States, he had a new appreciation for the culinary arts. But still he wasn’t sure of his direction. So he left Washington DC for the country to clear his head. He lived on a farm, ate from his garden and bathed in the river. He would spend winter nights in the library for the heat and would bring home cookbooks. He would bake at night to keep warm using a wood cook stove.  He would cook all the time in these days and would have friends and even lost hikers over for a meal.

In 1972, he joined forces with Reinhardt Lynch and opened a catering business out of their farmhouse kitchen using the wood cook stove and an electric frying pan that they had purchased for $1.59 at a yard sale. Their clients were those locals who were a little more adventurous than the average. Before they knew it, they were catering garden weddings and dinner for three hundred. They recruited the local “Flower Children” living in the nearby woods, bathed them and brought them to parties to be waiters and additional kitchen help. They bought all their food from a Safeway that was 40 miles away and would have to carry it across a foot bridge to the house. There were even times when the foot bridge washed out and they had to waded across. In winter this bridge would be covered in ice. They made “slithering” popular before Harry Potter did. When the bridge was icy they would lay on their stomachs holding the icy bridge with their left hand and holding a heavy bag of groceries with their right hand while squirming across like a caterpillar to the other side. Then they would do the reverse carrying out finished dishes for a catering event.

Four years later, in 1978 they opened the Inn at Little Washington during the worst blizzard of the decade. In a car garage with a rent payment of $200 a month, they managed to pull together $5,000 in savings and borrowed enough to build a kitchen. They transformed the front of the building into a dining room and cooked in the back of the building.

Out of these humble beginnings, Chef O’Connell built a restaurant and hotel that today has been a member of the Relais & Chateaux hotel group since 1987 and is ranked 52nd in the Elite Traveler World’s Top Restaurants Guide in 2012. The waiting list for a dinner reservations is around 6 months. Rooms at this Inn range between the Standard Queen at $440 to Claiborne House at $2575.  Not too bad for a little bit of winter “slithering”.

When I arrived in town, I quickly scanned the area for the blue building. When I saw it, it almost took my breath away. I have longed wanted to come here. Just to be close and hope that some of the “vibe” rubbed off. I was so taken by it, that I even passed the parking area twice.  Once I parked, I headed over to the gift shops. Of course I was overwhelmed and couldn’t bring myself to walk into the Inn first. I needed to take “baby steps” and at least get my composure back.


When walked in, I was greeted warmly by Sue Ellen. I explained to her who I was and what I was doing and why I was there. Thinking back on it, she must have thought I was a crazy fan because I can remember starting out talking as if I was out of breath. But she was polite and warm and quickly set me at ease. When I told her how much I adored Chef O’Connell and his story and how I have aspired to be like him, she smiled. Then she told me that Chef was going to be in that day.

I think I stopped breathing.

Then she told me that she thought he might be in around 3pm (it was 12:30 at this point) and if I could wait, she could see if she could arrange for him to meet me.

Okay at this point, I did stop breathing.

And my heart stopped too!

Really? Are you kidding? OMG!!

I quickly told her that I would wait until 5pm if I had to. I just couldn’t believe it! She asked me for my business card so she could call me. Then she directed me to a good location for lunch. I asked her if I could stop over at the Inn to take a quick peek at it. She told me that I could go over and meet up with Andrew, the general manager. To tell him that I was sent by Sue Ellen and he would show me around.

OMG! Really! I get to look inside too!

It was too good to be true!

So I thanked her and off I went. I met up with Andrew at the front door, which he held for me. I explained who I was and if he would mind allowing me to look around and maybe even see one of the rooms. He told me he would love to show me around once he finished his quick errand. He directed me to go inside and to have a look around the first floor until he got back.

Then I walked in…..

I cannot describe how beautiful this place is! The decor and furnishings are to die for! I think I almost tippy toed through most of the first floor because I was just so amazed. When I finished looking around I sat down in the lobby and waited for Andrew.









This is the ceiling!

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When he arrived he took care of two guests and then showed me upstairs. We went into a Superior Room with a King size bed and a balcony that overlooked the small garden in the courtyard. This room rents for $665 a night. I didn’t get any pictures of this room because I was so busy looking around. Andrew told me that Chef O’Connell had a London Theater Designer design and furnished his Inn. And the decor was just so dramatic!

When we finished looking around, Andrew pointed me to Stoneyman Cafe just a block away for lunch. So I caught my breath and heading over to eat. Stoneyman Cafe is just a block from the Inn at Little Washington. It is in an old mercantile with wonderful old doors and floors. It was like walking into Colonial Williamsburg. Executive Chef Chris Brown was wonderful and took time to talk to me.



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I ordered a BLT with a chilled Tomato Soup. I even got a little French dessert, whose name escapes me. The soup was cool and creamy with some croutons and rosemary. It was just right for the warm day. The BLT was on thinly sliced French bread with heirloom tomatoes. The dessert was like cool custard that tasted of vanilla.




After I finished up lunch, I headed back to the Inn. Of course it was only 1:30 by this time, so I had a seat in the small garden and fountain across from the Inn. As I sat there, I thought about all the struggles Brett and I have had to endure. Of all the setbacks and all the delays that have been beyond our control. Then I thought about all that Chef O’Connell has had to endure. I thought how small our struggles have been compared to those he had to go through. While they are hard on us, I know that through this, we will grow to be stronger and more determined. How many times we could have just walked away and didn’t. It made me proud that we have endured and know like the Inn at Little Washington, we too have good days ahead. We just have to live through the hard days first.



When I looked at my phone, I realized that I didn’t have a signal! What if she called! OMG! So off I went back to the Gift Shop. There I met back up with Sue Ellen. She was showing another sales person around when I came in. I informed her that I didn’t have a signal and hoped that she had not tried to call. She hadn’t… whew! But she did find out that Chef O’Connell was in fact not going to be in that day. It was his day off.

Balloon Popped…..

But I held up my chin and said that it was okay. That I could come back again sometime and even bring my husband. We talked for a few more minutes and I told her about how I wanted to turn our plantation into a beautiful place for weddings. She asked me how many people could come and I told her that we had 694 acres so the numbers could be endless. Then she said something that made my day!

She asked me if I had business cards with me. Of course I did a whole stack in my purse. Then she asked if she could have some of them. Which I handed her most of the stack. She then said, “I want to keep these. We get wedding requests all the time and some of them are too large for our area. So what I am going to do is refer those to you.”

Okay at this point, I was light headed and think I just about passed out! I couldn’t believe it! The Inn at Little Washington was going to refer people to…. us! Okay, I thought, where is the camera? I’m on some “punked” joke show right?


She then told me that she would keep one or two for herself and that she would give one to Chef O’Connell and ask him to look us up. (OMG!) And that she was going to make time to come to Belle Grove Plantation to see it! (OMG!) And that she would see if Chef O’Connell might like to come. (OMG! OMG!) I thanked her and headed back to my car. Or at least I think I did. At this point, I don’t remember much. I was so “high” on it all that I don’t even remember much of the drive home.

Okay except calling Brett and pretty much screaming in the phone. I think he remembers that part better than I.

But … WOW!

While I didn’t get to meet Chef O’Connell (which I think it is good because I don’t know if my heart could have handled it) I had one of the most memorable experiences. On all my little adventures off the beaten path, I have discovered some of the most wonderful places and people. There is so much to be said about taking the road less traveled.

I plan on taking it for the rest of my life. 

To see what we are up to at Belle Grove Plantation

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Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Darnell History | 16 Comments »