The Dabney debuted in an old row house in Blagden Alley last Halloween, humbly concocting dishes rooted in Mid-Atlantic food traditions with a laser-like focus on using local ingredients.
With a year and change under its belt, the team is having fun fine tuning its skills and trying out new techniques in its wood burning hearth, where the cooking action takes place.
Evolution is a constant endeavor, as chef Jeremiah Langhorne alters the menu daily depending on the availability of what’s in season. This fall, Langhorne and co-owner and general manager Alex Zink got the ultimate stamp of approval for the fare: The Dabney’s first Michelin star.
While they’ve been consistently full with reservations all year—it’s a relatively small 52-seat restaurant—post star, the team has noticed a definite uptick in walk-ins. For those who have been trying to nab a seat to no avail, Langhorne has a tip: show up right at 5:30 p.m.
Eater sat down recently with Zink and Langhorne to discuss their first year in business, what’s in store, and why D.C. has been a perfect fit.
Explain your day when Michelin announced the D.C. stars.
Jeremiah Langhorne: [José Andrés] released the stars he won at 8 a.m. and we hadn’t gotten a call from Michelin by 10 a.m. So we assumed it wouldn’t take them more than an hour to call every restaurant in D.C. to let them know who won, so we must not have. In reality they weren’t starting calls till 11. We got our call then. But I decided it wasn’t going to happen, so I was walking my dog on Rhode Island Avenue trying to get my mind off of it.
Why do you think The Dabney was deserving of its star?
Alex Zink: To be honest, when we decided to open a restaurant in D.C. years ago we [resigned ourselves] to the fact it wouldn’t be eligible for a Michelin star [since the guide wasn’t here]. So we ended up creating something very honest and personal to us and I think maybe the inspectors saw that. We are not crazy casual and we are not uber fancy. We have that place somewhere in the middle, with details we slip in.
J: We didn’t try to craft some sort of concept. We don’t fit into anything that was pre-existing; we just want to take great ingredients from this area and region, cook them over what I think is best way to get flavor—a wood burning hearth—and serve them to people in a fun, casual environment.
What inspired you two to open this kind of concept in the first place?
J: We both came from very high-end, fine dining backgrounds. And that is great to be able to execute at a high level but when you do that, you don’t necessarily want to go to a restaurant like that on a regular basis. It brings you to a dilemma. How do you merge the two, where you give that quality of food and execution and service to someone in a more casual atmosphere. We think this is the type of experience we want our guests to have, and it just comes out.
Any major adjustments in the coming year to watch out for?
A: Menu changes are a daily thing, even as we cross into serious winter weather and not knowing if we are going to get a delivery today.
J: We are always evolving. Based on the type of restaurant we are we don’t need to do across-the-board changes because of the way we source and what we use as an inspiration, like finding someone raising a new type of duck or quail. The beauty of restaurants like this is they build and get better as they go on and we refine our skills in the kitchen. The hearth is such a fun thing; there is always a new way to cook on it, always something new to learn.
You’ve said you’ll never do brunch or lunch. Why?
J: We designed this restaurant as the ideal type of restaurant we wanted and neither Alex or I had the desire to run a lunch or brunch service. So we set ourselves up so we did not have to make decisions like that financially, to be open for lunch even though no one wants to be there working but we feel like we have to open.
How are you liking the location, hidden off of 9th Street in Blagden Alley?
J: When we first came here we walked around and found parts of the city that represented what we were looking for. This alleyway did, and we got it in a roundabout way because there was nothing available here at first. It fits our concept perfectly. Imagine putting The Dabney in a new office building. It wouldn’t work. People called us crazy for being tucked off a back little alleyway. But we loved the neighborhood and we knew the vibe we were trying to create.
We lucked out because D.C. is focusing on its neighborhoods and people want to seek out more restaurants in small little areas. So the alleyway has been a great entrance for us.
Since you exclusively integrate seasonal ingredients in dishes, what challenges do the upcoming colder months pose?
J: It depends on your attitude more than anything. I like to make sure we build excitement for the beginning of seasons. We have a squash dish now that cooks in the embers for an hour, then it’s dressed with fresh mustards and more hearty greens. There’s lots of fun stuff, it’s just how you approach and attack it. But I am realistic. You have a couple months of freezing cold, and beets and rutabaga start to look sad at some point. But that is where the creativity and the hearth come in.
You opened right before winter last year. What was that like?
A: It was a little hectic having to open the restaurant sourcing that way into the worst season. We are excited to tackle this year with more systems set up.
What does your year-round rooftop produce this time of year?
J: We bring in cold weather covers and put lamps inside to keep warm. There are lots of plants that have temperature limits below what you’d think. Fava bean shoots, mustards, mizuna, and a lot of the Japanese greens do really well in cold weather. That helps keep us seasonal because if you can grow them, it obviously makes sense for this time of year.
How have your 50-some farmer and vegetable partnerships blossomed?
J: Years leading up to opening and in the first year we have been finding who grows the best turnip or the best head of cabbage. And as you work with people you find out they all have different pluses and minuses. We have couple that are great.
Would you ever do a second location of The Dabney?
J: You lose a lot when you multiply your restaurant. That’s the whole reason why named it The Dabney. We have something very unique and representative of one thing, one idea. We have different ideas we would like to pursue, and we would do something else at some point in the future but there would never be another Dabney.
Now that you’ve proven success in your first year, do you think similar concepts will start to pop up?
J: We hope so. A big part of this type of cooking is to raise awareness that you can support farmers, source that way, and be a restaurant that is made of your direct community. Hopefully we set a good precedent for that. A big part of the reason we do it is because farmers can do incredible things and we don’t want that to go away.
A: With D.C. going through a restaurant renaissance, it still offers the ability for first-time restaurateurs or chef owned and operated restaurants to exist and grow because it’s still affordable to do that here. We couldn’t open up a restaurant like this in New York City, San Francisco, or even Charleston, for that matter.
What does the growing amount of restaurants here mean when it comes to competition?
J: It’s an interesting time in D.C. with how many openings there are. The bad side is figuring out where that workforce is coming from, and how they fit into new and ambitious restaurants that are trying to do something different.
A: It’s very competitive. We are finally getting to a point in the past month where we are building a truly rock-solid workforce and support system. There are still details we are hashing out that we will eventually get to. When you’re so busy all the time there is a survival mode until a certain point before you can fine tune.
What kinds of details have taken time in the first year to nail down?
J: It took us a couple months to get bread service out and make sure we had cute little glass jars with butter. All those extra steps continue to come, and a good restaurant will continue to add them.
A: Or putting up holiday decorations at the beginning of the month instead of a week before Christmas.
You’re closing up a couple days around the holidays this year. What was the mentality there?
J: Instead of having to create turmoil by who is going to get off, we decided it would be a nice thing to do for everyone to take solidified days to relax. It’s another advantage of an owner-operated restaurant: benefits apply to the bosses as well.
With the Michelin star, do you now feel added pressure when it comes to maintaining it or shooting for another star?
J: We want to keep it, but we won’t change to a tasting menu to push for a second star or anything. But we want to keep doing what we are doing better every day, to maintain consistency and continuity of our concept. Look at Danny Meyer. He builds restaurants to continually evolve, with better service and quality. That to me is how you create a beautiful long lasting restaurant. We want to be executing with very, very high quality food and service in year eight or 10.