As It Happens

A Virginia restaurant is filling half its tables with mannequins for its reopening

A renowned Michelin-star restaurant will comply with physical distancing orders when it reopens by filling up half its dining hall with mannequins. 

‘It is as if they have come alive in the space,’ says owner of The Inn at Little Washington

When The Inn at Little Washington reopens later this month, half the diners will be mannequins. (The Inn at Little Washington)


A renowned Michelin-star restaurant will comply with physical distancing orders when it reopens by filling up half its dining hall with mannequins. 

"We wanted the room to look full and fun and I've always loved mannequins," Patrick O'Connell, chef and owner of The Inn at Little Washington, told As it Happens host Carol Off. "They're terrific to have around."

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of many restaurants around the world. But in some U.S. states, many are set to reopen with caveats like a lower capacity and strict distancing guidelines. 

The state of Virginia announced this week some restaurants will be allowed to reopen at 50 per cent capacity. The Inn at Little Washington, near Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains outside Washington, D.C., plans to open its doors on May 29. 

So, why mannequins? 

Originally, O'Connell says he considered removing every other table from the restaurant. But above each table hangs a beautiful lampshade, he said, and he worried people would bump into them. 

So he came up with something else. 

["The mannequins] can be positioned any way you like, but as they are, they can occupy every other table," he said.

"There will be about eight to 10 feet between tables, each table will still have a lampshade, but your neighbours may be mannequins."

The Inn worked with a theatrical company in northern Virginia to dress the mannequins. (The Inn at Little Washington)

The Inn worked with Signature Theatre, a theatrical company in northern Virginia, to find a way to follow distancing guidelines with a bit more whimsy. 

"We jumped at the chance to collaborate with another of Virginia's great cultural destinations in support of their reopening," Signature Theatre's managing director Maggie Boland said in an emailed statement.

"Signature's costume shop manager, Frederick Deeben, went to work pulling costumes and accessories to outfit the mannequins — dining couples — in 1940s style dress."

O'Connell said Signature Theatre wanted the costumed mannequins to look at home in the space and "and that they shouldn't really upstage the other living guests." 

"We just sort of 'peopled the room' as they say," he said, "so that even if you walked in as the first guest, you could feel that you had gone out and were in a happening restaurant."

O'Connell says he also wanted to keep true to how his restaurant usually feels, so one of the mannequins is a young man on bended knee proposing to an elegant woman, also a mannequin, while other mannequins gather around to watch. 

"We're known for a place people often propose in," O'Connell said. "It happens at least once a month. A special occasion kind of place."

'It's not odd at all'

Asked whether he finds the whole thing a bit creepy, O'Connell replied "Not in the slightest bit."

"In fact, much more real than creepy. It is as if they have come alive in the space. There's something about the gorgeous space in the restaurant that has changed them. They don't feel or look like mannequins at all," he said. 

"Each table has a kind of glow over it. Each table is its own little stage and they look really real and they feel really real and they give you a sort of comforting feeling rather than anything odd. It's not odd at all."

These sort of guests in residence "who never complain" will also be given wine and fine service, he said. 

"The idea is that after a regular guest has had a few glasses of wine, it will all feel completely real." 

Written by Alexandria Kazia. Interview produced by Tayo Bero. 

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?