While chefs help steer the culinary conversation at his Michelin-starred restaurant up above, Dabney Cellar co-founder Jeremiah Langhorne deliberately stays out of the way of the trusted suppliers — including the regional oyster farmers and country ham producers featured nightly — he showcases down below.
“We like to leave things as natural as possible,” Langhorne says of the wine bar he and beverage director Alex Zink have stocked with cured meats, cheeses, and seafood from around the area. Some prepared dishes remain in the mix (think: freshly made biscuits, and foie gras parfait punctuated by sour cherries), but Langhorne’s determined to keep things simple.
“Having a good plate of oysters is always a wonderful thing,” he tells Eater.
In 2015, Langhorne and Zink opened the Dabney, a homegrown restaurant focused on Mid-Atlantic cuisine prepared in a huge, wood-burning hearth. The co-owners planned to transform the downstairs storage area into an informal gathering place from day one; in late 2017, that vision became a reality. But while the upstairs collects accolades amid its roaring hearth, the new arrival is more discreet by design.
“It’s not our style to put up some kind of massive sign or create some kind of big line,” says Langhorne.
That effortless nature permeates everything in the Cellar.
In a nod to the former storage space, fire logs are stacked high for use in the wood-burning kitchen upstairs. The wood is intermixed with towers of wine bottles, from which bartenders refresh patrons’ glasses, while more wine and liquor bottles are scattered across the back of the bar in a way one would sooner expect to find at a friend’s dinner party.
While flickering flames are the focus upstairs, one of the first things to draw the eye downstairs is an ice-filled bin stocked with each day’s supply of fresh oysters.
“Upstairs, we’re looking to serve things that we are going to cook and manipulate and make into a dish. That’s what chefs do, and that’s our focus up there,” Langhorne says.
But the Cellar’s menu takes a different approach. The smell of buttermilk bacon biscuits lingers in the air with every order of the comforting snack. Lobster is bathed in brown butter, then piled high on a slice of toast.
Oysters — Langhorne’s favorite menu item — come in several varieties and are shucked to order. And Edwards country ham from neighboring Virginia is sliced to order and served alongside pickled ramps from the restaurant’s rooftop garden.
“It’s nut-fed, aged 400-plus days, smoked, and literally one of the best hams in the country — if not one of the 10 or 15 best hams in the world,” Zink says.
Both Langhorne and Zink are enjoying bringing diners that much closer to the members of their carefully constructed food chain.
“So many of the things that you enjoy the most — cheeses, meats, things of that nature — don’t need things done to them,” explains Langhorne. “We just pass [the products] along to our guests. It’s like saying, ‘Hey, we think this is great and we want you to try it.’ That was the main idea for how we structure things downstairs.”
Zink concurs. “It’s about showing the unadulterated simplicity of the beautiful products that the Mid-Atlantic offers … They’re incredibly complex foods, but you know, you have to serve them simply in order to showcase them.”
And while for many the Dabney has become synonymous with special occasions, the Cellar invites one to stumble in after work or play. On one of the coldest nights of the winter so far, a boisterous group laid claim to a table in the back, emitting intermittent roars of laughter so infectious that even the cook shucking oysters began to laugh along from across the bar.
“You can get a group of friends together, some can sit at the bar, and some can stand and then reach over,” says Zink, feigning a motion across the table. “Grab an oyster and then slurp it down. The freedom down here is just a little bit greater, I guess I should say.”
The hidden entrance coupled with the warm interior make for a unforgettable experience. And while both Langhorne and Zink both firmly assert the speakeasy nature is simply a byproduct of the Cellar’s surroundings, the place undoubtedly creates a vibe that is both cozy and, at times, pretty rowdy — fueled by the kind of excitement that comes from enjoying incredible food and drink in a place not yet on everyone’s radar.
“I love D.C. to death; it’s my favorite city in America,” says Langhorne. “It has this wonderful opportunity to create these new places. I don’t think there’s a place like the Cellar in D.C. — or in many other cities.”