Credit: Illustration by Max Kornell

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Every night, limousines pull up in front of the Inn at Little Washington. And sometimes the chauffeurs haven’t taken the most direct route. “I guess that’s the most frequent thing that’s happening right now,” chef and owner Patrick O’Connell says, explaining why guests at his high-end restaurant often arrive in foul moods. “Their limo driver gets lost, and here they are paying a fortune by the hour to ride in this big car, and they sit back, and they end up in the wrong town.”
The Inn is located in Washington, Va., a small country town at the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains. It’s not uncommon for guests to experience problems during the 70-mile trek from D.C., such as getting a speeding ticket or a flat tire, or even hitting a deer.

To ensure patrons don’t dwell on their troubles, O’Connell devised a rating system that judges their moods in hopes of improving them. Each guest’s mood is rated from 1 to 10, combative to euphoric. When diners walk in, someone at the front desk—often the service director, Francois LePelch—greets them and makes an initial assessment. “[I] seat them and tell the waiter upon seating their mood. Then the waiter takes over and decides whether it’s worse than thought,” LePelch says.

The key element of the system, aside from recognizing how a guest feels, is sharing that information with the back of the house. The restaurant’s computers are equipped with a program that prompts the server to enter the mood rating whenever an order is sent to the kitchen. After the server enters his code and the table number, anything sent after that—whether ordering food, firing a course, or printing a check—will require an update on the guests’ mood. In theory, all employees are aware of the status of all guests throughout the night.

“I think it’s refreshing to have a system in place in the restaurant that offers a clear line of communication from one department to the other,” says Tiffany Short, who has served at the Inn going on two years. “In other restaurants, the mood of the customer can get lost.”

That’s exactly what O’Connell saw happening many years ago when his small restaurant started gaining in popularity. He opened the Inn in 1978 in a room he rented in a gas station for $200 a month. It was “a sort of sweet local restaurant with dinner at $4.95,” says O’Connell. “I actually knew the names of almost every guest….You immediately intuited what would work, how to please them.”

“You know…she likes little portions, or he orders it medium, but he really wants it medium well, yes means no,” says O’Connell. But as favorable reviews were published and word spread, the clientele began to change.

“One night my partner came into the kitchen and said, ‘I don’t know anybody in the dining room!’ ” laughs O’Connell. “It was like, Oh my God, who is this audience?” As the restaurant burgeoned into an 80-seat dining destination, O’Connell implemented his mood-rating system.

Knowing whether your guests are happy is essential in a restaurant that is, according to the 2006 Forbes list, the fifth most expensive in the country. The seven-course prix fixe menu ranges from $138 to $168 per person. After wine and tip, a couple can easily drop half a grand for dinner. (And if they’d rather stay the night than find their way home after a few drinks, the cheapest room at the Inn runs $395.)

Partly as a result of this system, the reputation of the Inn, as far as service goes, looms large. “I’ve always heard the service is first rate, extremely professional, and respected in the industry,” says Brian Zipin, general manager and wine director of Central Michel Richard.

In cyclical fashion, good service begets good servers. The Inn attracts mostly people who are serious about working in the industry—typically not people waiting tables as a second job. O’Connell looks for people who genuinely want to please others. “We wouldn’t care if somebody worked 20 years downtown if they didn’t have that [quality],” he says.

For Short, it didn’t take long before she figured out the Inn was the place to be for career servers. “I’d been at [Restaurant] Nora’s for a while and was very interested in learning more about the restaurant industry,” she says, adding that she has no plans to leave any time soon. “There’s so much to learn, and it would be a shame to leave before I’ve gotten all I could out of it.”

The Inn’s remote location also acts as a built-in deterrent for any server who isn’t committed to the job—taking a position at the Inn usually necessitates a move to the country. William Washington, a former sommelier and server, said he loved every minute at the Inn, but “my wife had enough country living. She’s a city girl.”

The success of the mood-rating system depends on how well the staff pays attention to the guests. “We were all trained very hard to observe behavior,” says Washington. And experience is invaluable. “Part of it is meeting hundreds of people nightly in a specific environment, which is your space,” O’Connell says. “It isn’t as though you need to be Scotland Yard.…You’ve just done it in the same situation precisely for so long that the cues are all automatic and very rapid.”

The mood rating is assigned by what the guest says as well as the staff’s ability to judge body language. If a guest is a 7—quiet—or below, the restaurant goes on alert, according to O’Connell. Managers and servers will stop by the table to chat, they will send out a complimentary glass of Champagne to kick off the meal or an extra dessert at the end. In more dire cases, guests will be offered a tour of the kitchen to meet the chef, or they’ll be given O’Connell’s cookbook as a gift.

But what happens if the person is in a just-OK kind of mood—say, an 8? A former employee, who prefers to remain nameless, suggests that such guests can fall through the Inn’s cracks. “Not much else was done to put them at a higher rating,” says the source. According to this person, it was the lower scores, the ones around 5, where great attention and care were paid to improve a guest’s mood.

For some, comparable experiences can be found a short cab ride away. Ed Malloy, a Southwest resident, who celebrated his 30th anniversary with his wife at the Inn, says, “It met our expectations for the special event.” But he adds that he’s had equal or better food and service at Le Paradou and Taberna del Alabardero, both in the District.

Gary Leff of Alexandria, who celebrated his engagement with his now wife there, attests they both left at O’Connell’s goal for every guest: a perfect 10. “You might expect a restaurant of this caliber to be unapproachable. Quite the contrary,” writes Leff in an e-mail. “Our waiter was exceptionally friendly. He assisted in pairing wines for each course, and was genuinely interested in whether we enjoyed the selections.” According to Leff, the Inn’s service was superior to other upscale restaurants he has dined at. “We did leave at a 10….The service and the charm of the town make a meal at the Inn special.”

Washington says that for a guest to leave at less than euphoric “would be a very rare event.”

One such rarity happened when Jonathan Copeland, a cook at a prominent D.C. restaurant, visited the Virginia institution. “The Inn is supposed to be the pinnacle of service,” he says. And while the service was very good when he dined there, there were a few glitches. “We were never presented with a wine list. We were never visited [by] a sommelier,” says Copeland. “I ordered my food and then I had to ask them, ‘What about wine?’ ”

When asked to rate his mood upon arrival and departure, Copeland says he arrived at an 8 or a 9 and left at a 7½.