Michelin-Starred Restaurant Celebrates ‘Living Theater’ With Social Distancing Dining

Courtesy The Inn at Little Washington

The chef decided to use the restrictions as an opportunity to craft a rare experience.

As parts of the country start to reopen slowly, businesses are looking ahead at how they can adapt to the new normal. While it can seem like a daunting task, some are using it as an opportunity to reinvent their operations, making it a memorable experience for patrons. 

Take The Inn at Little Washington in rural Washington, Virginia, for example. The 23-room inn is home to a three-Michelin-star restaurant and boasts a full and grand dining room. Chef Patrick O'Connell was trying to figure out what the new normal will look like in half (or less)-filled restaurants and decided to get creative rather than feel compromised. With restrictions on capacity, he decided that empty tables will be theatrically dressed with mannequins.  

Gordon Beall/Courtesy The Inn at Little Washington

"I've always had a thing for mannequins—they never complain about anything, and you can have lots of fun dressing them up," Patrick O'Connell, Chef/Proprietor, The Inn at Little Washington, told Departures. "When we needed to solve the problem of social distancing and to reduce 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."

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The Inn is working with local companies Signature Theater and Design Foundry to create the sets. Every table that's unable to be seated with actual guests will be an entertainment and design touchpoint to keep things interesting.

"When The Inn at Little Washington reached out with the idea to costume mannequins, we thought it was a fun and creative way for them to conform to social distancing guidelines," said Signature Theatre's Managing Director Maggie Boland. "We jumped at the chance to collaborate with another of Virginia's great cultural destinations in support of their reopening. Signature's costume shop manager, Frederick Deeben, went to work pulling costumes and accessories to outfit the mannequins—dining couples—in 1940s style dress. We can't wait to see the dining room all decked out for a post-war party!"

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This concept goes well with the inn's overall focus on creating playful experiences. Sprawled across a 24-acre campus of plentiful gardens, mountain views, winding trails, there are a farm and a chicken coop complete with a crystal chandelier. There's also a cheese specialist with a mooing cow cart and a dining room dress code of "no wet bikinis."  

Courtesy The Inn at Little Washington

"The Inn at Little Washington has always celebrated the 'living theater' of a restaurant, and this project allows us to work with Design Foundry and Signature Theatre in DC 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."

Chef and Proprietor Patrick O'Connell was the subject of a recently launched documentary: "The Inn at Little Washington: A Delicious Documentary," streaming on PBS. He was also bestowed with the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award and National Humanities Medal in 2019.