Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Eric Newill
Eric Newill
May 2020

Mannequins prancing about in period garb may be the stuff of Hollywood fantasy, but just 35 miles outside of Norfolk, a three-Michelin-starred chef is hoping mannequins can at least bring some levity to fine dining in the time of social distancing. Since he opened The Inn at Little Washington in 1978, award-winning chef Patrick O’Connell has explored his culinary vision through a theatrical lens. “What diners are buying when they go to a restaurant is not a plate of food, but the right to be a part of the living theater,” he says. “We have educated our entire team to understand that we provide a set, and each night an interesting improv, where the guest is always the star.”

When The Inn reopens on May 29, the property’s richly decorated dining room will feature some new players: an assortment of mannequins in vintage regalia occupying many of the tables. Not only will they allow living patrons to maintain a comfortable separation from one another, but they will also add an element of wry delight as they enact various tableaux. “There’s a young man proposing to his girlfriend, and another person turning to observe that,” O’Connell says. “All these little plays are going on around you.” 

The Inn was assisted in the project by two creative forces in the Washington, D.C., area: Signature Theatre, which provided the 1940s-era costumes, and the event company Design Foundry, which brought the concept to life. “It just seemed like such a fun response to a difficult situation,” says Signature managing director Maggie Boland, adding that the entire operation came together in a matter of days. “It was an opportunity to support another great Virginia business.”

At first, because of the challenge of obtaining some of the imported luxury products the restaurant uses, The Inn will be offering a modified seasonal spring menu and full vegetarian menu, mainly sourced from the 24-acre property’s on-site farm and gardens. “It will be the same number of courses,” the chef says. “It’s imperative that we not alter our DNA. After months of being in their houses, people don’t necessarily want good home cookin’. They want that intricate, elegant, beautifully prepared and presented item that can’t be made at home.”

Known for his irreverent take on fine dining—including such touches as a cheese cart fashioned as a mooing cow—O’Connell maintains it’s important to experience a bit of charm and magic today: “If guests are given the opportunity to escape into an alternate reality, even if it’s just for an evening, they know such a place still exists for them.”

And while acknowledging that many restaurants tend to subtract elements in the interest of sleek minimalism, O’Connell says the addition of the mannequins and their stories will enhance the experience of dining at The Inn, while solving the problem of protecting guests. But what if patrons never want to dine without them again? “We’ll just build another room,” he laughs. “We think they should be all over the property. They should be sitting on benches in the garden. They should be in the courtyard. They should be waving from the balconies as though it’s a parade. There’s no restriction that can be levied on having fun.”

For you

Trending now