When self-taught chef Patrick O’Connell opened The Inn at Little Washington in a former auto repair shop in 1978, few would have wagered that the venture would not only succeed but would garner top accolades from restaurant critics for decades to come.
Though it has grown to include 24 guest rooms in the original structure (which also houses the restaurant and public spaces) and several outbuildings, the Inn still recalls another time and place. Inspired by notable European properties, O’Connell’s fanciful creation centered on the main streets of rural Washington, Virginia (population: 150), transports guests into a world where walls are painted in monkey motifs, cheese is served atop an anatomically correct cow sculpture and ceilings are bedecked in kaleidoscopic cutouts of designer wall coverings—and that’s just for starters. No two guest rooms are alike.
“What is lacking today [in hospitality] is a sense of place, an identity, an authenticity, a personality,” says O’Connell. “We want guests to feel like they’re in someone’s home and we want it to look as if it has been here a long, long time.”
To O’Connell, nailing the ambiance and timeworn patina is just as critical as serving an impeccable foie gras. “Your eye can never be bored, just as your palate can never be bored,” he says. “It’s all parallel, to keep guests intrigued and amused and to sustain that fascination.”
O’Connell grew up in “big” Washington, where he studied theatre at Catholic University. One could argue that he hasn’t strayed far from his first calling. In his forthcoming book, The Inn at Little Washington: A Magnificent Obsession (Rizzoli, New York, April 2015; $50), O’Connell reveals that in his mind the Inn is a “healing cocoon” and a “folly and stage set for whatever drama is being played out” in guests’ lives.
If the Inn is theatre, O’Connell’s leading lady is Joyce Conwy Evans, a London-based set designer who has decorated every room on the property—most of them sight unseen. After she receives a blueprint of a new project, he explains, “Joyce goes into a trance and starts painting a rendering in watercolor. She has a vision and then steps into it. It’s been a wonderful collaboration for over 35 years.”
In addition to guest quarters, Evans also collaborates with O’Connell on his private residences on the “campus.” One of these was Claiborne House. After O’Connell purchased the 1899 “eyesore,” he hired Alexandria architect Allan Greenberg to transform it into a stately, two-bedroom cottage that would look like it had always been there. The architect’s plan created a kitchen, library, media room and veranda and gave the house presence with a front porch and two-story foyer.
Named for a frequent guest, food writer, and critic Craig Claiborne, the cottage was O’Connell’s own home until 2006 when he moved into 1885 Victorian he’d purchased nearby. Soon after, Claiborne House became the Inn’s presidential suite. In addition to its namesake, the retreat has hosted Al and Tipper Gore, Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, designers Carleton Varney and Charlotte Moss and many a celebrity chef.
In the design of his current home, O’Connell and Evans are following their proven approach. “Each space, each piece of architecture, has a narrative that it needs to have told. It’s a little like raising a kid; it can’t necessarily be exactly what you want it to be. You follow its orders—and try not to go broke doing it,” O’Connell quips. Once they find a “clue,” whether it’s a piece of furniture, a color or wallpaper, everything falls into place. While his master bathroom is done (heated floors, marble-slab walls, Waterworks tub), the residence remains a work in progress.
However, readers will soon be able to survey the rest of O’Connell’s domain in his handsome and eloquent new book. “People who have worked here for 10 years have never seen it all,” he says. “The book is a window into the extent of the nuttiness.”
Chef, proprietor, co-designer and star of the show, O’Connell has clearly found his oeuvre. “My love,” he concludes, “is the art of transformation. Transforming anything. Like a turnip into something incredible, or a tear-down into something magical.”
Photographer Gordon Beall is based in Bethesda, Maryland.
Portrait by Michael Ventura