How Did Virginia’s Inn at Little Washington Earn Stars in Michelin’s DC-Only Guide?

A server readies the dining room at the Inn at Little Washington. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

From the official announcement in May that Michelin was coming to Washington, officials emphasized the inaugural guide would be confined within the District’s borders. Maybe, they said, they’d expand to the Virginia and Maryland suburbs in future years.

Michelin Guide International Director Michael Ellis reiterated the point in an interview with Washingtonian earlier this summer. He explained that Michelin didn’t have enough resources to scout the greater metropolitan area, given that it was also launching three other new guides in Singapore, Shanghai, and Seoul this year.

So how did the Inn at Little Washington—a restaurant roughly 70 miles from DC in Washington, Virginia—earn two stars?

“We thought long and hard about that,” Ellis says. “We sent multiple inspectors out, and found a fabulous place with great food, a worthy destination. [Chef] Patrick O’Connell has been there for 38 years. It’s been a huge draw, and he’s trained many, many chefs around the country. When considered, ‘Does the Inn at Little Washington really merit an exception?’ The response was yes.”

Though the Inn is certainly deserving of its accolades, the decision may seem hypocritical to some, especially in other cities. For years, people have bemoaned the fact that Blue Hill at Stone Barns—the acclaimed upstate New York restaurant from Dan Barber—isn’t considered for the New York Michelin guide. It’s less than half the distance from Manhattan as Inn at Little Washington is from the District.

Ellis says that Michelin inspectors focused most of their attention on the District for the first guide, as promised. At the same time, he says inspectors were conducting research with the long-game in mind—guides three and four years out that include an expanded area—and that he spoke to chefs about the question of whether or not to make the Inn an exception.

“What we got back from the chef community was that if we didn’t include the Inn at Little Washington, that would be a problem. Patrick O’Connell is such an icon, and trained so many chefs,” Ellis says.

Ellis says no such exceptions were considered for the Bib Gourmand list of superior wallet-friendly restaurants—a group that would be inarguably stronger if suburban spots like the Eden Center in Falls Church or Rockville’s Chinatown were in the running. Michelin wasn’t willing to “open that door.”

“This first guide, we wanted just to stick to DC, with the exception of the Inn at Little Washington,” says Ellis. “We don’t pretend to have comprehensive coverage. There’s a lot more out there, as we’’ll continue to learn.”

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