There are, by actual count of the National Restaurant Association, Washington, D.C., 858,000 eating establishments in the U.S. Now imagine you want to create the best restaurant in the country. You’d have your work cut out for you.

Yet two fellows, one from suburban Washington, D.C., and the other from the Midwest, have done just that. They created what many believe is the best restaurant in the U.S.

It ranks at the top of the Zagat Survey and in AAA and Mobil guide ratings. It would be on any list of the top three or four restaurants, and many would put it on top.

The remarkable thing is that the restaurant exists at all. It is on a side road in the middle of nowhere, in a village so small it often is not on the map. The two guys who started it didn’t know anything about the restaurant business. They were interested in growing organic foods, mostly fresh produce, and trucking it into the city to make some money. Later they opened a catering business. They learned by doing.

Even the restaurant’s name is unpromising: The Inn at Little Washington.

In a “wide spot” of Little Washington, Va., it’s about an hour’s drive west of Washington, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Paul Newman likes to go there for breakfast. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and TV newswoman Andrea Mitchell got married there. Celebrities and politicians flock there.

Patrick O’Connell and Reinhardt Lynch, the two founders, had a spectacular vision more than 20 years ago. From nothing they wanted to create a great country restaurant equal to the great Michelin-starred restaurants of rural France. They went to France, studied these restaurants, learned all they could, came home and eventually bought an old mechanic’s garage in the tiny Virginia town.

O’Connell became the guru of the kitchen, the creator of fine dishes based on freshness and the finest French country cooking. Lynch was the businessman charged with making the restaurant and the attached Inn into a viable enterprise. Everybody who is a good cook thinks they can run a restaurant. Most fail miserably, wrecked by the hard economic realities.

They sold their first meal for $4.95. Not long after that the Washington Star newspaper, now defunct, said the Inn was the best restaurant in the region. The rest is history. The restaurant has been fully booked ever since. It has never advertised.

So what exactly did O’Connell and Lynch create? Why is it so good? Well, think fanaticism about freshness and flavor. O’Connell will serve no food until its time has come. The kitchen rejects a lot of food. Suppliers know the Inn is a tough customer, maybe the toughest. Landover, Md.-based Keany Produce, one of the main suppliers, finally assigned a selector to hand inspect all of the produce going to the Inn.

“It’s been quite an experience,” Ted Keany said.

O’Connell also grows his own. The Inn not only has its own greenhouses for certain items, it also uses about 50 local growers. O’Connell and his staff meet every day at 2 p.m. to plan the evening menu based on what is fresh and looks good.

Next, there is the setting, the surroundings, the ambiance. In 1997 O’Connell and Lynch spent $5 million to refurbish the Inn and the kitchen. They built a fabulous large kitchen, all tile and stainless steel. The kitchen is part of the restaurant experience, and over in one corner is a nook with two tables. For a premium, diners can book these tables and eat in the kitchen.

The Zagat Survey said that “eating in the kitchen at the Inn is the gastronomic equivalent of sex.”

The dining rooms, which seat 80 people, are decorated in a spare-no-expense fashion. On tables in the reception area are two large coffee-table photo books about the restaurant. Fresh produce is not only served, it is part of the decor. Large bowls filled with fresh fruits and vegetables are displayed much as one would display flowers. The use of decorative produce is a tradition going back to Colonial Williamsburg.

Then there are the dishes themselves and the service.

The service is attentive but not overwhelming. The staff is neither snooty nor snotty, unlike staffs in restaurants on big ego trips. If you don’t know which wines to choose, the sommelier is there to assist. For 80 seats, there are 100 staff members, including 28 in the kitchen.

Each night the menu is different. Each diner receives a menu with his or her name printed across the top. Portions are not large but are wonderfully prepared, marvelously presented and served with artistry, verve and precision.

Dinner might begin with a chilled crab salad in tropical fruit coulis or country ham with white truffles, anjou pear and baby arugula. A first course might be Nantucket scallops in decorative shells with mushrooms, peppers and homemade sausage. A second course might be Virginia country ham with fresh blackberries, or pan-seared tenderloin of veal with forest mushrooms, baby brussels sprouts, raviolis of country ham and fontina cheese. A Napa merlot wine might be the recommendation.

A signature dessert is the Seven Deadly Sins, seven wonderfully light desserts in small portions served on an oversized ceramic tray.

At the close of the meal, diners are presented with a woven basket of goodies, candies, fruits and two long-stem fresh cherries.

None of this is cheap. Typical prices are $150 to $200 per meal with wine.

O’Connell says one reason people don’t eat more produce is that it is often so poorly prepared. The amount of badly prepared food, lacking in freshness and flavor, staggers the imagination.

O’Connell has shown what can be done with basic fresh ingredients. It makes you want to go out and kick your local chef.