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  • Writer's pictureCraig Stoltz

Patty O's Cafe: World-class culinary DNA at a price that won't gut your wallet

The smart mouths everywhere know all about the Inn at Little Washington, chef Patrick O’Connell’s rural dining extravagance: Three Michelin stars, three AAA diamonds, five Mobile stars, and decades of accolades from the national and international food media. O’Connell embraces the title, assigned to him one time by a food writer, as the “pope of American cuisine.” The Inn is sometimes considered the East Coast counterpart of the legendary French Laundry in Napa Valley.

The five-course tasting menu goes for $348 per person, with matching wines $200 additional. No couple gets out of there with under $1,000 on their credit card.

Which brings us to Patty O’s, O’Connell’s two-year-old casual country restaurant. Most entrees at Patty O’s are $20 to $30.

Patty O's lets the Inn-curious sample food that carries the O’Connell DNA at a price that doesn’t gut your wallet.

A visit to Patty O’s

One summer morning my wife and I made the 90-minute journey from the Washington DC area for Patty O's Bluegrass Brunch. It’s a pleasant drive through rising foothill highways and then, as you near Little Washington, meandering, and sometimes perilously narrow, country roads.

Patty O’s sits catty-corner to the formidable Inn, in the tiny hamlet of Little Washington (the town is legally known simply Washington, but the “little” is appended to distinguish it from the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC).

Like the Inn, the new restaurant is located in a former filling station. The structure has been reclaimed as a fanciful vision of retro Americana, with a whitewashed exterior, a latticework entryway, and a small patio with generous umbrellas out front.

Patty O’s -- the name is a casual play on the esteemed chef’s full moniker -- has an easygoing, playful vibe.

Framing the corner where sidewalks meet out front are a vintage motorcycle with ram’s head handlebars and a wooden cart suggesting a chuck wagon, positioned just so, as if by a cunning art director. A sign points to the side entrance of Patty O’s bakery, where everything is made by the restaurant’s own bakers.

The interior of the restaurant summons a nostalgic vision of American rural life. A deer’s head hangs over the fireplace; the ceiling is beamed; the walls feature small paintings and plates suggesting life on bygone farms.

The mural beyond the six-seat bar depicts a mid-century barn dance. Service touches include a silvery metal boot water pitcher wearing a red bandanna, and a French porcelain cow creamer.

The food at Patty O’s: Elevated country eating

Some context for the following (uncharacteristic) outright rave: As one of the diners lucky enough, and spendy enough, to have enjoyed the full Inn at Little Washington dining experience (twice!), I came to brunch primed to love Patty O’s.

Just as I’d hoped, the Patty O’s kitchen manages to bring some of the Inn’s elevated magic to meals that cost barely more than what you pay at the Cheesecake Factory.

The menu comprises American classics with imaginative tweaks, plus a few Francophone items that O’Connell revived from his earliest days at the Inn, like onion soup and escargot.

The menu is short, a dozen entrees at brunch, seven for dinner, plus seven starters. That’s often the sign of a smartly-run restaurant. This approach allows each item to be properly sourced and executed by a small team.

First, the cafe's burger. It was delivered stacked high, with a fat, perfectly medium-rare and tender patty, a melt of nutty Comte cheese (a French import similar to Swiss), lettuce, and pickles, all on a soft onion roll. It’s topped with fried onions for some crunch. It was delicious, even a bit beyond.

Somehow -- in the details, in the cooking, in the presentation -- the kitchen at Patty O’s manages to turn this quotidian American classic into a best-of-breed.

A cone of hand-cut fries stayed perfectly crisp for the entire meal. I have no idea how they do that.

The meat for the burger came from Snake River Farms. That’s not a local farm, as you might have expected. It’s a big national operation based in Idaho, one of the first producers of domestic wagyu. I suspect this sourcing is an example of the ways O’Connell is working to maintain low prices while still delivering knockout quality. The burger is $21.

The smoked salmon was a platter of gorgeous ribbons of delicately flavored fish, very lightly smoked, with a side of mustard dill sauce. The fish was arranged in a rosette and topped with a crispy mix of beautiful, finely chopped herbs and vegetables.

There is clearly some impressive knife work going on back in the kitchen.

The meal was served with a basket of breads, described

by our cheerful server to be a “gift of the baker” -- which is to say that, unlike at many upmarket bistros, the carbs come at no additional charge.

The breads included two idiosyncratic, nearly pudding-like soft discs of corn bread. We learned that they were made with sour cream and creamed corn, per the recipe of the sous-chef’s mom.

The meal ended with our best dessert ever.

No, I’m not just saying it was the best pecan ice cream ever, although it was. It was the best end-of-meal indulgence we’ve enjoyed anywhere -- creamy and nutty and just sweet enough, with a sidecar of superbly crafted caramel sauce. It arrived in a colossal glass-and-metal goblet that, when carried through the dining room, makes heads in the restaurant turn.

Not everything we had was worth a 90-minute drive.

The avocado toast was diligently executed and well presented, but unspectacular. The scoop of potato salad, described as a beloved recipe from the youth of Patty O himself, was creamy and tasty but in no way extraordinary. The caraway flatbread served with the salmon looked great but was a toss-away.

The wine list is brief but well curated, with a few Virginia selections. The bar delivers some bright original cocktails. I loved the sasparilla Old Fashioned.

Background entertainment for the bluegrass brunch was an all-acoustic trio, its musicians all of a certain age. They played fiddle, stand-up bass, banjo, guitar, and mandolin, unobtrusively but congenially. It all added a crunchy, authentic touch of Appalachian charm.

Yes, I came to Patty O’s primed to adore it. But I don’t think I’m being lovestruck when I say that, regardless of the expectation you bring, you’re likely to be delighted too.

The food is memorable, the setting a delight, the servers happy, prices reasonable, the dining-pleasure-per-dollar ratio very high -- and the speck of that Inn at Little Washington DNA worth every penny.

Patty O’s Bakery & Cafe, Washington, Virginia. Reservations recommended ($20 deposit), but the restaurant does keep a wait list for walk-ins.

Headed to Little Washington? Check out this quick guide.


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