Patrick O’Connell, the venerated force behind the famed Inn at Little Washington and unabashed lover of dalmatian-spotted cooks’ pants, apparently wasn’t too thrilled last week to read that his place had been unceremoniously dropped from No. 1 to No. 22 in Washingtonian’s annual “100 Very Best Restaurants” list. So the chef and restaurateur released a rebuttal to a local newspaper in which he basically reminded readers how awesome everyone else besides Washingtonian thinks the 36-year-old establishment is:
“All of us at The Inn at Little Washington have much to be grateful for as we enter the new year. The Inn remains the longest-tenured Forbes Five Star and AAA Five Diamond restaurant in America. We possess the highest Zagat rating (29, 29, 29) in the world. Once again, The Inn has received The Washington Post’s highest 4-star rating from restaurant reviewer Tom Sietsema. Most of us understand that, in today’s world, as print media struggles for survival, creating controversy sells magazines whether it’s ethical or not.”
Apparently to hammer the point home, a table of O’Connell’s regulars — including Times writer Marian Burros and the 135-resident hamlet’s mayor — petitioned food critic Todd Kliman and Washingtonian editors in a letter. Burros openly questioned the demotion. “It’s ‘Look at me,’” she said, suggesting the magazine did it all for the clicks.
Initially, Kliman honed in on the restaurant’s recent format change, writing that a pricey vegetable-forward tasting menu was uneven. “[I]n practice, it looks stinting, particularly when you compare the constituent parts — half a beet, a slice of cauliflower — with the luxury ingredients on the other menus,” he wrote, also noting that the Inn’s famous largesse just isn’t functioning the way it used to. After O’Connell spoke out, the magazine ran its own 1,000-word detailed explanation of the demotion, almost four times the length of its first blurb. “Unethical? I really don’t understand what chef O’Connell is trying to say there,” Kliman wrote, before explaining that not being honest does a disservice to the restaurant’s more magnificent past and diving into the nitty-gritty of recent dining experience.
As polite as this exchange may be, O’Connell’s insistence that his kitchen is operating at the zenith of excellence is another instance of when chefs go to war with critics. These things tend not to end well for the restaurants involved, of course, and typically empower the reviewers. Still, the very public rebuttal to a bad review is an emerging trend within the industry: A chef coalition in Texas recently formed in opposition to Dallas Morning News critic Leslie Brenner, “lobbying for a more nuanced system that includes separate ratings for food, service and decor,” the Washington Post reported. While no such system has yet emerged from within the industry or from the food-media side, O’Connell is griping that his fine-dining Inn should not be lumped together with less formal establishments, and that’s a sign that support for broader overhauls to reviews may be growing.