As restaurants begin to reopen in limited capacities under state-mandated orders, one Virginia eatery is getting creative in how it will fill vacant seats.
The Inn at Little Washington, a three-Michelin star restaurant tucked away in the countryside, will recruit life-size mannequins to sit in the unoccupied dining room spaces.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is allowing restaurants to reopen outdoor seating at 50 percent capacity beginning Friday in the state's "phase one" reopening plan. Indoor dining at half capacity may be allowed in phase two, Northam said last week.
The Inn has opted to remain closed until it is able to open the dining room.
"I've always had a thing for mannequins – they never complain about anything, and you can have lots of fun dressing them up," said Patrick O'Connell, chef and owner of The Inn at Little Washington. "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."
O'Connell, regarded as the "Pope of American cuisine" and awarded with the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019, is always looking to uphold the Inn's charm and "relevantly irreverent" brand.
The Inn is working with local companies Signature Theater and Design Foundry to create the sets.
"The Inn at Little Washington has always celebrated the 'living theatre' of a restaurant," O'Connell said. "We're all craving to gather and see other people right now. They don't all necessarily need to be real people."
The dining team will treat the lifeless guests as real customers. The Inn cherishes an inherently theatrical ambiance, including a cheese cart that is a roaming, mooing cow equipped with a monger who speaks exclusively in cheese puns, a bug hotel, and a chandelier-adorned chicken coup. Hence, it only felt natural to have the servers occasionally check in on the mannequins, maybe even pour them some wine and ask about their day.
Diners will also be able to engage with the emotionless guests in 1940s era fashions. Photo ops with the displays will be welcome.
The Inn at Little Washington, a 23-room, Double 5 Star, Double 5 Diamond inn and world-revered restaurant, is sprawled across a 24-acre campus of plentiful gardens, mountain views, winding trails and farmland.