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Mannequins Will Fill Empty Seats at This Michelin-Starred Restaurant

Food & Wine logo Food & Wine 5/13/2020 Mike Pomranz
a woman sitting at a table: Renowned chef Patrick O’Connell’s social-distanced reopening plan for the Inn at Little Washington is pretty out-there, but so is everything else right now. © Courtesy of The Inn at Little Washington Renowned chef Patrick O’Connell’s social-distanced reopening plan for the Inn at Little Washington is pretty out-there, but so is everything else right now.

Walking the streets over the past couple months has been an eerie experience. Even some of the most notoriously busy areas like Times Square have been completely quiet. But would setting up a bunch of mannequins make things feel less creepy? A renowned restaurant in Washington, Virginia, is about to find out.

The Inn at Little Washington—the D.C.-area’s only restaurant with three Michelin stars and subject of a recent PBS documentary—has devised an unorthodox plan to help fill the void created by social distancing. When chef Patrick O’Connell reopens for dinner on May 29, the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award Winner will be placing what a spokesperson called “theatrically dressed” mannequins at empty tables to serve as “an entertainment and design touchpoint to keep things interesting.”

a woman sitting at a table: Courtesy of The Inn at Little Washington © Provided by Food & Wine Courtesy of The Inn at Little Washington

“I've always had a thing for mannequins—they never complain about anything and you can have lots of fun dressing them up,” O'Connell stated. “When we needed to solve the problem of social distancing and reducing our restaurant's occupancy by half, the solution seemed obvious—fill it with interestingly dressed dummies.  This would allow plenty of space between real guests and elicit a few smiles and provide some fun photo ops.”

Though dining alongside mannequins may sound a bit odd, O’Connell also explains that these figures won’t simply be pulled from a Macy’s window. “The Inn at Little Washington has always celebrated the ‘living theatre’ of a restaurant and this project gives us an opportunity to work with Design Foundry and Signature Theatre in D.C., who we've collaborated with in the past,” the chef continued. “They will be providing the costumes and make up for our mannequins. We're all craving to gather and see other people right now.  They don't all necessarily need to be real people.”

a couple of people that are sitting in the living room: Courtesy of The Inn at Little Washington © Provided by Food & Wine Courtesy of The Inn at Little Washington

The restaurant says it has a history of being “reverently irreverent,” and in their defense, since patrons are paying $248 per person for a tasting menu, at least they’re getting the most immaculately-dressed mannequin-diners money can buy.

“When The Inn at Little Washington reached out with the idea to costume mannequins, we thought it was a fun and creative way for them to conform to social distancing guidelines,” Signature Theatre’s Managing Director Maggie Boland said. “We jumped at the chance to collaborate with another of Virginia's great cultural destinations in support of their reopening. Signature’s costume shop manager, Frederick Deeben, went to work pulling costumes and accessories to outfit the mannequins—dining couples—in 1940s style dress. We can’t wait to see the dining room all decked out for a post-war party!”

Sure, O’Connell’s idea might seem out-there, but nothing is really off the table within the post-coronavirus “new normal.” Some cities are considering turning over entire streets to al fresco dining. An Amsterdam restaurant is giving guests their own isolating greenhouses. In Sweden, there’s even a one-person restaurant in the middle of a meadow. So are dining dummies really that bizarre? We’re all under a lot of stress, so don’t feel like you have to answer that one.

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