Patrick O’Connell, the famed chef whose Inn at Little Washington once again earned three Michelin stars last week, is going casual. At a forthcoming cafe set in an old post office near his bucolic-chic Rappahannock County destination, he’s planning a menu of house-roasted coffee and “deceptively simple” food “done better than you ever thought possible,” he says. It’ll be the first time the restaurateur has launched a business apart from the Inn.
Over the past year and a half, O’Connell has worked on the cafe prototype with the help of many of his 158 staffers (there are 133 residents in Little Washington, by comparison). The space is slated to debut late next summer, and the hope, he says, is to bring it to DC. “The plan is to perfect that first location off-Broadway,” he says. “And then we’re open to replicating it in a more urban locality. It lends itself beautifully to being able to spin off.”
O’Connell’s dream is to have a place where people can sit outside. “I think there will never be enough sidewalk restaurants,” he says. “Paris is one of my favorite cities, and I love just walking along and whenever you need to, you just sit down and have a coffee or glass of wine, and you appreciate the city in a way that you can’t while driving or walking through it.” His true fantasy is a 24-hour restaurant, since he likes to start dinner at midnight: “I always think people are so lazy that the world closes at five o’clock.”
In DC, he visited three locations that intrigued him, but nothing has panned out (I’d first heard he was considering the Wharf, but he thinks a food cart might be better suited to such a “carnival.”). In Little Washington, he holds a sous chefs’ lunch every Friday, where the group samples possible dishes for the cafe menu. There’s no set lineup yet, but O’Connell has had one cook working on a table-side Caesar salad for months; another has been perfecting matzo-ball soup. Other dishes he’s batting around: former New York Times critic Craig Claiborne’s tomato soup; grilled cheese sandwiches made with comté cheese and a little tomato or bacon; a rolled omelet “with something wonderful inside”; a cured tongue sandwich with Russian dressing; and a trio of pot de creme that hasn’t been overly refrigerated (“I like things to wiggle.”). An adjoining bakery will serve the croissants that only the Inn’s overnight guests (and Luray, O’Connell’s pampered dalmatian) get to taste: “It’s second only to one in Paris, at the Ritz Hotel.”
O’Connell is also thinking he’ll bring back some favorite dishes from the 41 year-old Inn’s less formal early days. Smoked trout with horseradish and apple cream, say, or a French onion soup with apple puree and Calvados.
“People always ask me why I didn’t [open in DC], as if to say, what’s wrong with you?,” O’Connell says. “And I’d say, well, at the point that everything here is running seamlessly and smoothly. I guess we’ve reached that point.”