At a destination like The Inn at Little Washington, it’s not really a surprise to see a proposal on bent knee paired with a meal to remember. But when the inn and restaurant reopens for dinner service, tentatively on Friday, May 29 (making it the first three-Michelin-starred restaurant in the country to reopen), no matter what time you dine, you can be assured you’ll see budding engagements.
That’s because the boater-hat-sporting gentleman popping the question is a mannequin, as is his lace-dressed lady love. So are the couples watching the proposal. Their unblinking eyes are fixed on one goal: social distancing.
Because the restaurant must open at a limited capacity, chef and proprietor Patrick O’Connell, whose chicken coop also notoriously boasts its own crystal chandelier, decided to have some fun. He contacted local companies Signature Theatre and Design Foundry to create eye-pleasing mises-en-scènes, complete with post WWII-era costumes that fit seamlessly in the luxe dining rooms.
When the announcement came last week, local and national press alike weren’t quite sure what to make of the novel idea. The word “creepy” has not been uncommon in the coverage. Though instilling fear in diners wasn’t exactly the goal, O’Connell is appreciative of the attention.
And he maintains that they’re not really as forbidding as writers assume. A crew from CBS visiting on a recent morning told him, “It sounded odd and creepy until you saw them in the space.”
In fact, O’Connell himself via phone says that the overall feeling guests get when they are in the room with the mannequins is very much the opposite. “What the mannequins symbolize is that we’re inviting our guests to have fun,” he says. “And to solve the very real situation of separation between tables in a charming and amusing way.”
He compares the feeling he’s going for to an Irish wake, saying, “More than anything, we need to know that somehow life can and will go on and we can find a way to still have fun and enjoy some of our favorite places. Whether they have mannequins isn’t important, it’s that other restaurants find ways to alleviate the anxiety that the guests are going to inevitably feel, and possibly the guilt also of going out. “
But there’s no question the mannequins were a good idea. Even locals who haven’t yet entered the building are enjoying them; O’Connell has spied neighbors taking photos of them from outside the restaurant, bending their “are they real or aren’t they?” appeal ever further.
Between the broad media coverage and the simple desire to get out of the house, diners have been busy calling The Inn at Little Washington hoping for a seat on “opening night.” O’Connell previews that morels are currently plentiful and his famous morel meatloaf, a fully vegetarian treatment of the mushrooms that fool even devoted carnivores, will be on offer. So will homegrown asparagus, “delicate spring herbs” like lemony sorrel and peas that lend a vibrant green to a Napoleon of Maine lobster served on the gastronaut tasting menu.
But though people want to be part of the “historic moment” of reopening, The Inn will actually be opening to the public beginning Memorial Day weekend. That’s when O’Connell will debut Garden Tours that will continue throughout the season. The Inn will offer two tours a day, at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., throughout the weekend. For $50, guests will be treated to not only the tour of the property’s many gardens, but also a boxed lunch from the storied kitchen. “Throughout the months of being closed, we’ve maintained our horticultural team of five gardeners as well as two farmers,” O’Connell explains. “It’s a wonderful way to showcase their work and not miss all the flowers coming up.”
Fortunately for diners, not everything at The Inn at Little Washington is coming up roses. It’s also coming up mannequins, morels and most of all, fun. // 309 Middle St., Washington
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