Chef Jeremiah Langhorne's careful focus on local, Mid-Atlantic ingredients has garnered his first restaurant plenty of attention. The Dabney immediately became one of D.C.'s hottest restaurants upon opening in October 2015.
But this installment of The Gatekeepers features Alex Zink, the restaurant's co-owner and general manager. He talked to Eater about the trial by fire of running a restaurant that had some serious buzz even before the first day of service. Most importantly, he gives some tips on scoring a reservation. There are also some new plans in the works for the warmer months— like opening a patio.
Did you expect to be this busy so quickly?
I think we anticipated it happening, just based on the press that we got prior to our opening. We were very fortunate that the Washington Post wanted to follow us throughout the course of the year as we opened...
In the beginning it was trial by fire, which is great. By three months in we've figured some things out as opposed to finally getting busy three months in and not being exposed to as many situations as we have right now.
Is it more challenging to be busy right away?
From a front of house perspective, of course. But almost, more importantly, from a back of the house perspective.
One of the issues in being so busy from the start is conceiving a dish and execution. There just isn't a lot of time to do it. Fortunately, Jeremiah is an amazingly talented cook. He's got a great palate and eye.
Do you reserve any space for walk-in customers?
We're a small restaurant. We have 52 seats within our main dining room. On a given night, we have six or so dining seats that are available for walk-ins on a first-come, first-serve basis. Relative to the size of our restaurant, we have a large bar where we offer a full menu and amazing service behind the bar. We also have high-top tables within our bar area for walk-ins on a nightly basis.
Do you keep a reservation wait list?
I'll be honest. We do put all our availability on OpenTable. Guests ask if they can be put on a waiting list, but I have to tell them that when cancellations are made on Open Table, we don't know. And 30 seconds later someone could be searching on Open Table, and that reservation pops up.
For walk-in diners, we absolutely keep a wait list. We'll take their number. We'll text them when their table is ready.
We'll give them as accurate a waiting time as possible. Being two and a half to three months in, we're starting to get a better idea of our turn times. That was one of the big challenges from the get-go. Our bar staff creates a dining wait list.
Are guests lining up early to get a table?
We don't have a line– yet. It would be great if we had a line.
On a busy night, is walking in a hopeless prospect?
No, it's not hopeless. As you can imagine, everyone kind of wants to dine between 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. If you come between 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., I would love to say that if you can't sit down right away at a walk-in table, that you'll be in the next turn. If you come at eight o'clock, I think realistically there's a two-hour wait.
Do you get many cancellations or no-shows?
It happens on a nightly basis. It's unfortunate, and for us we're fortunate that we can usually fill that seat. But it's just one of the evils that you have to deal with.
Is it a balancing act to get lingering dinners to leave without pressuring them?
That is one of the biggest challenges of working front-of-house– managing reservations and honoring those that have made reservations later in the evening.
We want people to enjoy their time as much as possible. We'll never rush food out, by any stretch of the imagination. But if you've paid, and you're lingering over a long conversation, and you're a two-top and it's been two-and-a-half hours or close to three hours, I might offer to buy you a drink at the bar or something like that.
What about with large groups?
We have one table that accommodates parties of five or six that we allot three hours to and are only about to sit twice a night.
Are their drawbacks to taking reservations?
The unfortunate part about having reservations is that we don't flat-seat our dining room right when we open, which is incredibly hard. We do stagger it. We don't fill up 100 percent right away.
If someone comes,and they see half the dining room empty, it doesn't mean we don't want to accommodate you. It's just making sure everyone can have an amazing experience– get their drinks in a timely manner, get their food in a timely manner.
Is it a burden to have a reputation as a "buzzy" restaurant?
No. Being chef, owners, and operators, the only burden I think is that it gets to be a little bit tiring.
We have a small staff and so we all work really, really hard. As it should be– we're brand new. If we weren't busy some nights that would give us a night possibly off. But I would rather be really, really busy than be able to sit at home because we're slow.
Have you had any trouble running out of certain dishes?
The fortunate (and unfortunate) part about the way our kitchen sources is that we get whole animals, and there's only so many loins in a pig or so many New York strips in a side of beef.
There are only so many portions we can offer in a night. If you wanted to have unlimited amounts of pork loin or what have you, you'd have to kill so many things just to sacrifice that. That's just not fair.
But [running out of a dish] has happened. It's never anything we ever want to do. You have your par for that night, and some nights you sell a ton of rockfish and some nights you don't.
Any plans to expand into to lunch or brunch?
We will. We are planning to offer brunch as we get into the warmer months. Lunch? In the Shaw area? I don't think so.
[The Dabney also plans to open a small patio for cocktails and dining come spring.]