Within a couple visits, the chef had zeroed in on Blagden Alley, the historic neighborhood that once mixed architectural styles and social classes back in the 19th century. There was just one problem: No one in the area had a property to lease Langhorne. Instead, real estate brokers paraded him up and down the trendiest commercial corridors in Washington.
“Every other area that we checked, it just didn’t feel right. People were like, ‘Oh, you guys should go down to H Street!’" Langhorne recalls. "We went down to H Street and looked around, but it was like, it’s not what we want.”
The more Langhorne and his business partner, Alex Zink, scouted locations, the more they realized how perfect Blagden was for their restaurant, a project dedicated to building a cuisine out of the flora and fauna of the Mid-Atlantic. The restaurant, like the alley, had a foothold in the past and an eye on the future.
Whether by fate or by obstinacy, the partners got their wish: On Oct. 14, Langhorne and Zink officially sealed a deal with Douglas Development to lease a Blagden Alley space behind a trio of rowhouses on Ninth Street NW. Actually, their space is still an Erector set of steel beams, located on a patch of dirt where an old brick structure once sat. Douglas is expected to complete construction and turn over an empty shell to the first-time restaurateurs by the end of November, and Langhorne hopes to open his 70-seat restaurant by late spring. He plans to call the place the Dabney.
Langhorne can effortlessly break down his reasons for holding out for Blagden, as if he were solving an algebra problem.
“First of all, being on the alley is kind of paramount. It’s one of the last, I feel like, historic places in the city, especially around this side of the city," he says. "No. 2 was the outdoor space. We really need to have some sort of a garden area; it’s kind of essential to our philosophy. And having everything on one level floor was also another huge thing for us. Just for me, it’s kind of the aesthetic and the feel that you get when you walk back in the alley."
Langhorne is working with Edit Lab at Streetsense to design the Dabney, which will be built around a giant wood-burning hearth, the heart of the restaurant. The open, 10-foot-by-5-foot hearth is so heavy that its very presence dictated what types of spaces Langhorne and Zink could consider. Engineers apparently determined the hearth needed to be placed on a solid concrete slab, with no work space located directly beneath it.
"It's so heavy, and there's so much concrete and so much stone that no one wants to get involved in a building that has that sitting with two tenants below them," Langhorne says.
As you might surmise, the 2,800-square-foot Dabney will rest on solid earth, save for a 1,300-square-foot basement that runs under the three rowhouses in the front of the building. There will also be a semi-enclosed courtyard, with an open roof, where customers will dine among the plants and herbs that Langhorne plans to cultivate in the 300-square-foot space outfitted with lattices and a trellis system.
"The courtyard was probably one of the biggest selling points to us for this space," Zink says. "Once you step into that front door, you're kind of transported into our vision."
"You'll really be eating among things. It will be quite an interesting space," Langhorne adds. "It's going to feel very much alive."
The ground floor will be divided into a bar, a main dining room and another semi-private dining area built where a garage once sat in Blagden Alley. Construction crews will re-use brick from the old garage, in part, to build the semi-private dining space. Yet no matter where diners sit, Langhorne wants them to have a view of the open kitchen, where their food will be prepared in one of several temperature zones built from burning embers in the hearth.
"We wanted really to make sure that people could see the hearth," Langhorne says.
The basement, at least initially, will be reserved for an office, a staff restroom and a space for Langhorne to ferment, pickle and age products. Another section of the basement could be built into a second bar eventually.
“Obviously our budget is going to be focused on building [the ground floor] before we move down to here," Zink says. "This will not be totally finished when we open initially.”
Incidentally, the restaurant's name comes from Langhorne's own past. His brother unearthed the surname while conducting genealogy research. Langhorne likes the timelessness of the name and, of course, its connection to the past.
“It’s an old family name for me," Langhorne says. "And it’s an old Virginia name. It’s been around for a long time. A lot of Dabneys were involved with UVA and a lot of development of that part of the state."
The Dabney, the restaurant, will soon be involved in the further development of Blagden Alley.