Michelin-Starred Dining for Dummies: The Story Behind the Social-Distancing Mannequins at the Inn at Little Washington

"They're all drinking wine," chef-owner Patrick O'Connell informed us of his famous, albeit lifeless, friends

Michelin-Starred Dining for Dummies: The Story Behind the Social-Distancing Mannequins at the Inn at Little Washington
She's no dummy: Can you spot human Inn employee Jessie Dawson? (Courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington)
May 21, 2020

Even by the standards of an elite triple-Michelin-starred shrine to fine dining, the guests at the Inn at Little Washington are polite. They don't chatter loudly and incessantly, never berate servers, wouldn't think of sending back a dish or wine. They don't hold up the restroom, or fidget, or blink, or breathe, or experience sadness or pain … because the first guests to occupy the dining room at the longtime Wine Spectator Grand Award winner in the hamlet of Washington, Va., after its COVID-19 shutdown are mannequins.

When the restaurant reopens on May 29, it will adhere to the state's 50 percent capacity restrictions—for live humans. But the tables will be full, and the mannequins, outfitted in snazzy 1940s attire, are ready to feast. “It all came out of the necessity for creating space between tables,” chef-owner Patrick O’Connell explained to Unfiltered. The nature of the room and decor made removing tables logistically awkward, "so the idea of putting charming mannequins at every other table solved the problem for us perfectly. It gave us a very full looking dining room. Even if you should arrive and be the only party for a while, you feel like you're not alone.”

O’Connell and his team went all out for this project and worked with a theater company to not only design costumes for the mannequins but also create a story for them. “[The mannequins] are not just sitting there like dummies, they're creating a little narrative,” said O’Connell. “One man is proposing on bended knee to his girlfriend, and she's looking very surprised. The others are trying to figure out what is going on at that table and turn to stare. They're all drinking wine. And this allows our waitstaff to play and interact a little bit with them, wait on them and top off their wine.”

What are the mannequins drinking, we asked, as journalists. “They’re drinking good stuff,” O'Connell assured us.

The Inn at Little Washington interior with mannequins
On the right, a mannequin proposes. He awaits the response; it feels like an eternity. (Courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington)

Do the mannequins have names? “Well, they are just beginning to develop personalities that will lead us to creating names that are perfect for them," said O'Connell. "When they were brought into our space, they came alive; they look very at home. So when you are seated in the room, especially after you have had a glass of wine, you no longer sense that they are not real.”

As O'Connell and his team patiently wait for the restaurant’s re-opening, they are having fun with their newfound friends. “Because we are bored, we have stuck a few members of our staff who look like they could pass as a mannequin [in the room] and clustered them in with the actual mannequins and had them be very still. So that's especially amusing, and you can't tell who is and who isn't [a person],” noted O’Connell.

According to O'Connell, flesh-guests are eagerly awaiting the chance to meet and take pictures with the mannequins (we're dubbing it the #ManniSelfie). “The astonishing thing is the number of people who want to be here ‘opening night,’ as they are calling it, and who want to see mannequins.”

But what will happen to the mannequins once 100 percent capacity in the dining room can be resumed? “We have a considerable investment in them," said O'Connell. "They will never leave! But I always wanted to have them on all of the balconies on our buildings around town, waving or just having tea or something like that."

“I love creating reasons for people to look up. Because as humans, we are just so focused downward it seems.”


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