by Lee Graves
Randy and Jacque Rarick decided to end their two-week vacation with something special. They live in Hawaii, where Randy is executive director of a company that coordinates a professional surfing championship. The Raricks often travel to Europe, but this time the couple chose to tour the Southeastern United States. After stays in Tennessee and North Carolina, they lingered in Virginia, with Rappahannock County their final stop. A trip that began with barbecue in Memphis ended with minced squab at the Inn at Little Washington.
“There were things on the menu that I had no idea what they were. I said, ‘What’s a squab?’” Randy Rarick says and laughs. “For us, it was just a delight to try all those different things.”
A tradition of delighting guests has made the Inn first in the hearts of many seeking the sublime in food and hospitality. From the crudest of beginnings three decades ago — part of the building once was a garage — chef Patrick O’Connell and former partner Reinhardt Lynch built a business that has earned five-star ratings and superlatives from culinary critics and travel experts.
In an atmosphere of plush chairs, tapestries, thick rugs and dark wood, guests enjoy intimacy without isolation. The service is marked by attention without pretension.
O’Connell’s trademark is American cuisine using local products whenever possible. But when you take the first taste of mint-infused English pea soup, for example, you know you are in for an adventure transcending traditional bounds. A four-course meal served on a Sunday in June, for example, included tequila-seared prawns on charred onions and pan-roasted Maine lobster.
Such an unforgettable experience doesn’t come cheap. That meal cost $158 per person, not including beverages, taxes, and gratuity. Randy Rarick, however, says the experience is worth the price. “Would you do that every week? No,” he says.
The Raricks’ stay in Little Washington was just the ending the couple sought to their Southeastern tour. “I would have to say this was one of our best trips ever,” Randy Rarick says.
A stroll through Little Washington — population, about 200 — should include a visit to The Packing Shed Gallery on Gay Street. Run by Tucker Hill and June Jordan, it displays work by local and regional artists in an old apple-packing shed. The space represents a loose confederation, says Hill, a printmaker with Richmond roots. “There’s really no plan for it.” You’ll hear much the same from Joanie Ballard. She and her husband, Robert, run R.H. Ballard Art Rug & Home, which earned Southern Living Magazine’s pick as one of the top 50 shops in the South for its mix of art and craft. French jacquard linens share space with Oriental rugs and original lithographs by Matisse and Chagall.
Though the Inn sets the town’s tone, there are other places to eat and sleep — Heritage House, the Gay Street Inn, Middleton Inn, the Foster Harris House.
And the rural reaches of the region offer myriad attractions — pick-your-own orchards and vintners such as Rappahannock Cellars and Gray Ghost Vineyards.
The town of Washington is off U.S. 211-522 between Sperryville and Flint Hill in Rappahannock County. Details: http://www.town.washington.va.us.
The Inn at Little Washington requires reservations. Details: (540) 675-3800 or http://www.theinnatlittlewashington.com.
The Rappahannock Association for Arts and the Community holds events throughout the year. Details: http://www.raac.org.
The Theatre at Washington’s schedule is at http://www.Theatre-Washington-VA.com.
A guide to bed-and-breakfasts in Rappahannock County is at http://www.bnb-n-va.com.
The Shenandoah National Park nearby offers biking, hiking and motoring along the Skyline Drive. Details: (540) 999-3500 or http://www.nps.gov/shen.
Over the past 30 years, the Inn at Little Washington has grown into the economic heart of a town that trades on its history, art, charm and rural grace. The town’s operating budget includes $347,000 from meals and lodging taxes. Owners of inns and bed-and-breakfasts in the area immediately around the town report 1,000 guest nights. About 20 percent of that, 200 guest nights, comes from spillover from the Inn at Little Washington.
Sate and national registries recognize the historic value of the town (surveyed by George Washington in 1749), and architectural covenants
dictate its preservation.
The preservation effort owes a debt to Peter and Joyce Kramer. They came to Little Washington in the 1970s after living in New York City.
“I wanted to make furniture and had been making furniture, and I wanted to find a more rural setting,” Peter Kramer says.
He and Joyce, now divorced, helped gain historic designations for the area, and Peter built a world-class cabinet and custom furniture trade on Gay Street.
Art shops, galleries and The Theatre at Washington combine to give the town a vibrant sense of culture, yet the energy remains balanced with the peace of rural repose. Claudia Mitchell, president of the Rappahannock Association for Arts and the Community, says the area’s natural beauty — farms and orchards thriving in foothills rising to the Blue Ridge Mountains — draws artists, particularly painters.
Though the diversity of interests serves as a magnet for many, there’s no question that the Inn is big business in Little Washington. They’re like 85 percent of our income,” Mitchell says.