As businesses in Virginia get ready to reopen later this month as part of the Forward Virginia initiative, restaurant owners are grappling with the new restriction that they must limit dining room seating to 50% of their usual capacity.
The Inn at Little Washington, a world-renowned restaurant in Washington, Virginia, that has three Michelin stars, has come up with a unique — and possibly creepy — solution to enforce social distancing while allowing the restaurant to still appear busy.
On May 29, the acclaimed eatery plans to reopen with well-dressed mannequins seated at empty tables.
On Tuesday, the restaurant posted a picture of its reimagined dining concept on Instagram. The photo shows the restaurant's opulent grand dining room filled with life-sized mannequins dressed to the nines.
"Social Distancing is “INN” style," the restaurant captioned the photo, which shows its elegantly lifeless customers decked out in fashions from the 1940s.
The eerily realistic-looking dolls were all outfitted by Shirlington's Signature Theatre as part of chef and owner Patrick O'Connell's vision. Design Foundry helped the restaurant create the table "sets," which were styled and put in place for the first time this week so they'll be ready for their debut later this month.
Serving will also be asked to "attend" to the mannequins, which may include engaging them in (one-sided) conversation or pouring them drinks.
O'Connell, who is known for his refined American cooking, was recently the subject of a PBS documentary and is no stranger to implementing irreverent ideas at the property. The restaurant has a cheese specialist with a mooing cow cart that speaks in puns and the dining room dress code simply states, "No wet bikinis.”
Commenters on the Instagram post were split on what they thought of the socially-distanced dining room: Some would-be patrons are finding it hilarious, while others say it looks "freaky."
The Inn at Little Washington, located about 90 minutes west of Washington, D.C., is sprawled across 24 acres and includes beautiful gardens, winding trails, a farm and a chicken coop with a crystal chandelier.
Not only is O'Connell is excited to reopen, he thinks the silent, well-heeled guests will add a special ambiance to his restaurant.
"I've always had a thing for mannequins," said O'Connell. "They never complain about anything and you can have lots of fun dressing them up. 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."
Earlier this week, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced that restaurants in his state could start reopening on May 15 at 50% capacity in their outdoor areas. However, he also said that Northern Virginia, which has been hit harder by coronavirus, will need to wait until May 29 to begin reopening businesses.
The Inn at Little Washington, which is located in Rappahannock County in Northern Virginia, told TODAY Food that it had intended to wait to open until May 29. Tasting menus start at $248. On May 22, the Inn will open for ticketed garden tours and picnic lunches. A representative for the restaurant said they will also be adhering to strict guidelines regarding safety and hygiene.
"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," said O'Connell. "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.”