Chef Jeremiah Langhorne was hoping to ride out the pandemic. And so for months, he and partner Alex Zink resisted reopening the dining room at their acclaimed Shaw restaurant The Dabney. Maybe the virus would get under control? Maybe there’d at least be more government aid? The most responsible thing to do, it seemed, was to wait as long as possible.
But the longer they waited, the more it became clear that this pandemic isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The Dabney had been primarily getting by on takeout orders—something the upscale Mid-Atlantic restaurant had never done previously. But as other restaurants reopened and more people began to feeling comfortable going out again, those to-go numbers have dropped. It took an entire week to do the kind of sales the Dabney used to do in a single day pre-pandemic.
“I consider Alex and I very responsible business owners, but no matter how responsible you are, having enough savings and money to last you through more than six months of crisis? I don’t think anybody does that,” Langhorne says. “No matter how much you love a business or love a restaurant, it really doesn’t make sense to just sit there and run it into the ground. We definitely need to make a change.”
So, more than seven months after first shutting down its dining room, the Dabney will reopen for indoor service on Friday, Oct. 23. Beyond operating with half the seats, one of the biggest changes is that the restaurant is switching to a four-course prix-fixe menu for $75. Takeout will continue with a limited selection of a la carte dishes.
Beyond Covid, Langhorne has also been rethinking what kind of restaurant he wants the Dabney to be as it approaches its five year anniversary. A silver lining of the limited capacity is that the kitchen will have the time to make the food a little more refined.
The new menu will continue to highlight regional farmers and producers, and frequently change with the seasons. Now, even more so, it’ll showcase lesser-seen native ingredients available in extremely limited quantities. Take, for example, wild local hazelnuts, which are hard to find and harder to process (they need to be dried for weeks, then cracked open individually). Langhorne is turning them into a nut butter that will top dried apple chips along with foie gras and foraged spicebush seasoning. The snack is one of three to five small bites that will start the meal. From there, diners can choose from four appetizers, four main courses, and two desserts.
The pandemic has also afforded Langhorne the time to meet with farmers and forage in the woods again. He’s tracked down sarsaparilla, the root beer-flavored root of the local sassafras tree, which makes its way into the sauce for a confit duck dish. And he’s been on the Chesapeake Bay fishing for rockfish and trying to determine the optimal way catch, kill, and store the local bass so that it tastes the best with cauliflower, chestnut, and a puree of black truffle.
The restaurant can seat about 30 people inside and 12 to 16 outside. Langhorne continues to be worried about safety and has a slew of new protocols in place, but he also wants the dining experience to be as normal as possible (no QR codes here). Like everyone else, his team is craving that sense of normalcy too.
“We have a crew of people in the restaurant that are used to operating at a certain level that have all been doing takeout,” Langhorne says. “Getting back to being able to plate food on real plates and see somebody enjoy it is something that I think is really crucial to making sure everybody stays sane and stays happy.”
The Dabney. 122 Blagden Alley NW; 202-450-1015.