The Inn at Little Washington, a three-Michelin-starred luxury restaurant in Rappahannock County, Virginia, had big plans to open up on May 15, but there have been a few bumps along the way. First, Mayor Ralph Northam decreed that diners would have to eat outside in the first phase of restaurant reopenings. So the Inn’s chef, Patrick O’Connell, pushed the opening date back to May 29. Then the mayor announced another regulation: Dining rooms could only be filled to 50 percent capacity, which means there would be a lot of empty seats in spacious restaurants. O’Connell knew that would throw off the restaurant’s atmosphere so he came up with a plan to simply fill all the empty seats with mannequins dressed in mid-century formal wear.
According to the Washingtonian, the theatrical chef, who majored in drama in college, is working with Shirlington’s Signature Theatre to get his mannequins outfitted in ‘40s-era garb for their big debut. O’Connell is not treating his attempt to bring some life into his restaurant as a laughing matter: Servers have been instructed to pour wine for the mannequins and “ask them about their evening,” as the Washingtonian reported.
The mannequins are supposed to make the dining room look crowded, mimicking the feel of a busy night on the town, eating and enjoying wine while being surrounded by the boisterous conversation that usually accompanies a restaurant dinner. Of course, COVID-19 changed all that, and the vast majority of Americans have n0t been able to enjoy a sit-down dinner in about two months, or even seen anyone outside of their kids, partners, and pets.
While it’s still unclear if diners will want their first dining companions in months to be mannequins, kudos to O’Connell for trying something to make his establishment appealing to restaurant-starved diners emerging from quarantine. He’ll also be offering custom-made masks with “Marilyn Monroe smiles and George Washington chins.”
Restaurants have to be creative to stay in business right now, so no matter what you might want to say about forcing people to dine with creepy mannequins wearing costumes, you can’t deny that O’Connell is trying his hardest to get interest drummed up before he opens.