As restaurants in some municipalities get the green light to reopen, there's all sorts of new considerations to be made. There's the matter of outdoor vs indoor seating, new restrictions on capacity and ensuring diners are seated at least six feet apart. There's the matter of masks, gloves, and other precautions for waitstaff and back-of-house personnel. And, for one Virginia restaurant, there's the matter of getting the vintage mannequins ready.
Yes, you read that right. The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia will be filling the dining room with stylish dummies in period clothing – the work of a nearby theater – so that patrons don't feel the space is too empty or lacking in ambiance when they return, despite state regulations that demand indoor dining rooms operate on limited capacity to reduce the chances of spreading the novel coronavirus.
Chef Patrick O'Connell has worked with the Signature Theater and Design Foundry in Arlington on all the details, creating a 1940s look for the mannequins that fits right in with the historic jewel box of a dining room. The Inn at Little Washington reopened for dinner service on May 29, in keeping with Virginia Governor Ralph Northam's orders for phased reopening of the state's businesses.
In the past, the Inn at Little Washington has earned numerous accolades that have nothing to do with a coterie of silent, if well dressed, "diners." The restaurant has been awarded three Michelin stars – the highest rating available – and chef O'Connell himself won a James Beard award for lifetime achievement. But the mannequins do fit right into the ethos of a restaurant described by one Eater critic as "a literal destination that remains relevant through its timelessness.”
The impeccable level of service that the restaurant is known for will be extended to the mannequins as well as the flesh and blood diners. According to the Washingtonian, servers will treat the mannequins much as they would any patron, even offering them wine and inquiring about their well-being. That, along with cheeky masks featuring the mouths of Marilyn Monroe for the ladies and George Washington for the gents, adds up to a blend of safety precautions and dinner theater O'Connell hopes will win over locals and visitors from DC alike.
Of course, the question for many restauranteurs around the world remains – will diners be willing to leave the house as stay-at-home orders are lifted, or will they ere on the side of caution before returning to their old social rituals? While some like O'Connell are going above and beyond to create a welcoming (and well-sanitized) atmosphere, there is the continued fear of COVID-19 for many, not to mention a smaller subset of the population with a case of pediophobia – or fear of dolls – to contend with.
Still, for foodies who have missed the Inn At Little Washington's lauded tasting menus built around themes like "Here and Now" and "Gastronauts," the chance to tuck into dishes like Heart of Smoked Scottish Salmon with Apple Noodles and Horseradish Cream and Carpaccio of Herb-Crusted Elysian Fields Baby Lamb Loin with Caesar Salad Ice Cream might be too tempting to resist.
Also hard to resist is some measure of curiosity about whether the mannequins prefer the Blain-Gagnard, Morgeot, Chassagne-Montrachet wine pairing out of France or the Alto Moncayo, Garnacha, Campo de Borja from Spain. After all, they are about to become the Inn's most consistent dinner guests, with their own favorite and reserved tables. Who better to ask for a recommendation than a regular?