Jeremiah Langhorne's vision of a restaurant steeped in the Mid-Atlantic doesn't begin and end with ingredients. His philosophy extends to the construction of the Dabney — and the contractor, sub-contractors, plumbers, even millworkers who will bring his place to life in Blagden Alley.
Langhorne and business partner Alex Zink seem to spend as much time meeting with subcontractors as they do foraging in the woods, though that may not be as strange as it sounds for a duo dedicated to the bounty of the Mid-Atlantic. The goal of the two tasks is the same: The partners will embrace only the people and ingredients that meet their standards.
“Pretty much everybody that’s working on the project, he and I have gone and met and talked to — to make sure they’re the type of person [whom] we want involved, even if it is just the plumber," says Langhorne during a walk-through of the Dabney construction zone. "It doesn't make sense for us to do business with people who don’t at least share a similar kind of mindset.”
So, have you declined to work with anyone after meeting with them?
“Oh, yeah,” both say, almost simultaneously.
And on what basis did you reject them?
“Too commercial,” Langhorne says. “I think one of the biggest problems with the D.C. dining scene is that there’s too many people [who] didn’t take the time to make those decisions. And they’re just like, ‘Hey, we’re just going to do this. Oh, they used them? Great. We’ll use them.’ ”
If you ask the guys for their definition of "too commercial," they'll go both macro and micro.
“Not getting their wood from Oregon," says Zink, referencing millworkers who don't think locally.
“And also just straight up commercial," chimes in Langhorne. "Like they do huge commercial projects that are not based around having some small, specific niche that they’re trying to fit into. It’s more just a business, you know?"
“As I get older, you think about your local economy and the people within it. I want to try to support them as much as possible in everything. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to just do it with produce, you know,” Langhorne continues.
This is when Zink issues a reality check: Not everything in the Dabney will be custom-made. “We’re also cost-conscious, being our own operators," he cautions.
The Dabney will indeed be an idiosyncratic space when it opens this fall, perhaps as early as September if Langhorne's timetable holds. The restaurant is part of Douglas Development's Gang of Three mixed-use project, in which the developer has renovated a trio of rowhouses that date to the late 19th century. Some of the brick inside the Dabney comes from the original rowhouses, which were largely demolished to build the structure that faces Blagden Alley.
New brick will be laid on the Dabney's outdoor patio and continue inside at the 14-seat bar, eventually leading straight to the hostess stand. Another major construction material will be concrete, a specialty of Langhorne Concrete, a business owned and operated by the Langhorne family for several generations. The chef's father and younger brother, Keith Langhorne and Jacob Langhorne, respectively, will help pour the concrete counters and the giant, wood-burning hearth that will be the centerpiece of the Dabney.
Langhorne's father "used to do a lot of detailed concrete work, like 10 or 15 years ago, but a lot of that stuff went out of style, so it’s just not as prevalent anymore," the chef says. Now the family business pours a lot of big concrete floors.
Because the 11-foot-wide hearth will be open-flame, Langhorne and Zink want to limit the other heat sources in the kitchen. Which explains why you won't find any traditional gas burners in the Dabney. Langhorne plans to install induction burners and a Keating flat-top, which, according to the manufacturer, radiates less than 10 percent of the heat that you would feel from the surface of a traditional steel-plate griddle.
"Everyone loves planchas," Langhorne says about the classic griddle, "but planchas get huge hot spots, and they’re hot as hell to work over. Keatings, you can hold your hand literally over [it], and . . . it will put off no heat. And you can put 30 steaks on it and sear them all at the same time, and they’ll all be perfectly even."
The kitchen will also set aside space for whole animal butchering. A 10-foot-long stainless steel counter will feature a spray nozzle and a drainage trench, into which the blood and guts will flow. The butcher counter is located right next to the walk-in, all of which is tucked farther back in the kitchen, away from the 60-seat dining room.
"Butchers, I find to be usually pretty solitary people," Langhorne says, "They like to kind of be in their little realm and have all their stuff right at arm’s reach.”
Only one part of the Dabney remains unclaimed: It's the front section of the basement, separate from the downstairs prep area, the office, employee bathroom, laundry room and other spaces. Langhorne and Zink aren't sure what they'll do with this gorgeous high-ceilinged room, whose old brick walls still echo with memories from a century ago. The space is accessible from a small entrance, located underneath some concrete steps on Ninth Street NW, which makes the room seem like the perfect candidate for what restaurateurs call, without irony, a speakeasy.
“We purposely want to wait and see what’s going to be the best use for it,”Langhorne says. "We just want to maximize the space, whatever works out the best.”
Once again, Zink stops his business partner to inject a little reality into the situation. He hints it would better to find a use for space sooner rather than later. "We're paying rent on it," Zink says.
Meet Jeremiah Langhorne: