Welcome back to The Gatekeepers, a feature in which we roam the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables.
Stephen Lyons [Photo: The Inn at Little Washington]
The Inn at Little Washington is a culinary institution, well worth the just under 70 mile drive from Washington D.C. to Washington, Virginia for the experience. As a destination restaurant, reservations can be near impossible to score at the last minute, but with some careful planning, it may not be as hard as it seems to get a table. For this month's edition of The Gatekeepers, The Inn at Little Washington's food and beverage director Stephen Lyons (formerly the executive sous chef at the restaurant) talks about the secret dinner seating for inn guests, the unofficial dress code and who's really booking those reservations one year in advance.
How long is the typical wait for reservations at the Chef's Table?
About two months.
Does a larger party for the Chef's Table (Chef's Tables can accommodate up to 6 guests at each table) help secure a reservation faster? Like, would it be easier for a party of six versus a party of two?
No, it makes no difference because the surcharge is the same. It's first come first serve.
Is it easier for guests staying at the Inn to get dinner reservations than for people who simply come in for dinner?
Yes, for the main reason that when you book a room you are guaranteed a table reservation.
How many tables are held each night for guests of the Inn?
Depending on occupancy we'll hold as many tables as we have rooms. So for example tonight, we'll have 18 areas on hold throughout the reservations, knowing your most popular dinner times as well as confirming with the guest when they made their reservation if they have a specific time in which they wish to dine.
Another benefit for staying in the hotel is that on Saturday night we have two distinct seatings. There's an early seating and a late seating and the late seating begins at nine except for the hotel guests. We seat them slightly before at 8:30/8:45 and those seats are only available if you're staying in the rooms.
I know that you take reservations as far out as one year, but what's the shortest window you recommend?
It depends on flexibility and party size. If you're a party of two with a flexible dinner time then two weeks. If you're a party of four and you're looking for a specific time, then we recommend 4 to 6 weeks.
About how often do you have dinner guests that call in for reservations one year in advance?
It's rare one year in advance. What we find more are people who upon check-out say, "I want to do it again next year for our anniversary or my husband's birthday" or something like that. Lots of times those [with reservations] one year out are people also booking a room and a dinner reservation.
The restaurant is located in a pretty rural area; how often do you get walk-ins?
If you were to get a walk-in, how long is the wait for a party of two on a weekend evening?
It's so rare...we don't recommend it. There's no way to really determine how long a wait would be. Most people don't just pop in unannounced. Dinner is also a 3 hour experience so we don't turn over tables like a regular restaurant, but we do try our best to accommodate.
So does that mean you don't have regular diners in the general sense that you think of regular diners, like a few times a week?
No, anyone that we consider regular diners are here monthly.
Does the restaurant use other reservation tools besides the website?
We have a fully staffed reservations department that strictly fields phone calls for rooms as well as dinner reservations. The other unique beauty that we have is that a lot of our staff have formed friendly relationships with repeat guests so everyone is basically a concierge that can help with booking reservations for repeat guests.
Do you see a lot of cancellations?
No, it's very rare. The only time I see cancellations are illnesses or unexpected business travel plans.
When people do have to cancel suddenly, do they go back to the bottom of the list for a new reservation?
We always want to try to get people out to see us so our first reaction is to work something out. No one wants to lose a deposit whether you're the person supplying it or the company receiving it so we just say "let's re-book" and they love that option, especially if it's a room and dinner because there's a deposit involved. If it's just dinner, we work with them to pick a new time and date.
How are weeknights at the restaurant?
Weeknights are strong and busy but being a destination place, weekends are definitely busier.
As a destination restaurant similar to Manresa, Tickets and Noma, do your reservations tend to slant more towards reservations having been made at least six months out?
We tend to look at it seasonally. Reservations are generally made three to four months out but once you start looking at the peak seasons of spring, fall and holidays then you're talking six months.
I saw there there's no official dress code, but what kind of outfit would you absolutely not allow in the dining room?
We've never not allowed anyone. I just had some working hands from this horse farm come through that popped in and they were like "Well, I guess we're not quite outfitted for this" but we got them set up in the lounge with a cocktail. Now that's rare. Men tend to wear jackets, dress slacks and ties. Women are the same with dresses or a pant suit. It's a destination place so people are getting dolled up. We never say we have a dress code but 99% of the time people are coming here for some sort of celebration and they're dressed quite nice.
Has anyone ever bribed you for a table?
No, I've never been bribed. Most people have usually planned out the occasion for which they are dining with us and aren't trying to book at the last minute.
Have you seen a lot of VIPs? Are there more celebrities versus political figures?
Yes...that's far as I will go. It's a pretty even mix, we've seen lots of culinary personalities. It's really all of the above.
How does the restaurant handle menu change requests?
Often and gracefully. It's much more common than it was even five years ago with dietary restrictions, and strong dislikes and things of the such. We make every concession we can while still keeping the integrity of the dish. We also try to handle guest requests that want to revisit a menu item from the first time they dined with us twenty years ago or a dish that just isn't served anymore.
How do you all handle this trend of bringing cell phone cameras into the dining room?
It's amazing how many people photograph their food. If they are just trying to snap a quick shot and then the iphone goes back on the table, then there's no harm in that. What we do want is for people to enjoy the dish as it comes out. You don't want the food to suffer. Hot food should be hot and cold food should be cold and if you're spending ten minutes taking pictures you're going to miss what the experience is.
What's the best dish you've eaten at The Inn at Little Washington thus far?
What I look forward to every year is that Bay scallop that comes every November. Right now the morel mushrooms are amazing, the asparagus, white truffles. What I always appreciate is the time of year when a certain ingredient is at its best when it comes into the restaurant.
Where do you like to eat when you're off the clock?
I've got a young family, two little girls, one that's just a month old so right now home is a really great spot. For me, it's really family and friends right now. Anything off the grill or where I can go to a great grocery store and make something simple.
How long have you been with The Inn at Little Washington and where were you before that?
I'm in my fourth year now but for three years of those years I was the executive sous chef here running the day-to-day operations for Chef Patrick [O'Connell]. This year is my first year as the food and beverage director. Prior to joining The Inn I was the executive sous chef at the Four Seasons on the big island of Hawaii.
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