Inn at Little Washington has topped or ranked highly in our DC-area restaurants surveys. His luxurious New American in the Virginia Hunt Country has been a treasured destination for decades, and in the just-released 2013 survey, it came out on top for Food, Decor and Service.
We asked chef-owner O’Connell how he keeps things fresh - check out our Q&A below. Be sure to let us know your thoughts in the comments or via Google+ and Twitter using the hashtag #ZagatDC2013.
Zagat: What does it take to stay on top for so long - how do you keep exceeding ever-increasing expectations? How do you keep things from getting stale?
Patrick O'Connell: Staying "on top" (whatever that means) simply requires that each day you improve. We think of The Inn as a garden - living, breathing and constantly changing on a daily basis.
We have a pep talk every night and we read the beautiful and touching comments and sweet letters from our guests, which are frequently quite moving. They remind us that the experience we offer is much more than dinner. We continually try to reinforce every individual's importance to the success of the show. Recently we organized a ballet class for the dining room staff and they loved it. We also read restaurant reviews and discuss them.
Zagat: How has the economy affected the Inn? Is it now just for the affluent, or do people still save their pennies for a "once-in-a-lifetime experience"?
O'Connell: The Inn is certainly not immune to shifts in the economic climate. Fortunately, having been here for more than three decades we have guests who have made a tradition of celebrating anniversaries, birthdays and major life events here. They are not about to give up those traditions. We have always had a diverse clientele base and continue to see many guests who have saved a very long time for a special night out here. We also have visitors who might formerly have been making frequent trips to European dining destinations who in these times are discovering comparable alternative destinations at home.
Zagat: How has the restaurant changed over the years? What has changed since the last survey was published?
O'Connell: The restaurant has been continually evolving for 35 years. It changes every day. There must always be something new to keep us stimulated and to delight and surprise returning guests. During the last two years we've focused a lot of energy on our gardens. We have a resident farmer on the property who provides our kitchen with more than 50% of our produce during the growing season.
Zagat: What dishes can’t you take off the menu? Do you tweak them, and hope no one will notice? How do you work changes in the menu?
O'Connell: For almost 15 years our “Tuna Pretending to be a Filet Mignon Capped with Seared Foie Gras on Charred Onions with Burgundy Butter Sauce” was the hands-down favorite main course. Some regulars never ordered anything else. Recently our executive sous-chef presented some alterations to the concept, which lightened the dish and made it feel even healthier. The tuna is now crusted with mustard seeds and made into a "sandwich" with foie gras. It's served with a preserved lemon purée. We were amazed and delighted to discover that our regulars liked it even better than the "classic."
Zagat: We understand that you train your staff to assess the happiness/satisfaction quotient at each table during a meal. What are some of the things they look for and what do they do to make the table happier?
O'Connell: Our "mood indicator" is one of the more effective tools in assessing our guests' receptivity. It simply requires our dining room staff to zero in and evaluate a diner's frame of mind and take steps to elevate his or her mood. Sometimes the guest will present obvious signals indicating that all is not perfect in their mind. We try to read their body language carefully. We require the staff to accept nothing less than a superlative comment about the food as opposed to "very good" when they look in on the table after presenting the main course. I always tell them that nobody drove this far or paid this much for a "very good" dinner. Early on, a guest with "issues" or who may be critical is flagged and collectively we make a game out of bringing their mood rating up to a nine or above before departure. It empowers the whole team to see that this is possible in almost every instance.
Zagat: Does your theatrical background have anything to do with the over-the-top, luxurious decor?
O'Connell: If one of your goals is make guests feel like royalty it certainly helps to have a regal setting. The lighting has to make women feel beautiful. The space cannot have hard edges or look like an airport if your intention is to create an enveloping cocoon of luxury. I believe that beauty, harmony and luxury have the ability to reinforce our humanity and divinity. These elements are becoming increasingly rare in a culture ever more fixated on the bottom line. Many public spaces these days make me feel as if I'm in a chicken processing plant or at best an airport lounge. I like the definition of a good room as being one which makes you smile as you enter it. At the Inn at Little Washington our motto is: "too much is just right."