This James Beard semifinalist restaurant celebrates mid-Atlantic cooking in an environment that emphasizes tradition.
Each region of the United States — and probably of every country — has its own special cuisine: food that’s connected to the area’s animals, whether wild or domesticated; to its fruits and vegetables; and even to the native trees that can be turned into cooking fuel.
New England, for instance, has clam chowder and lobster. In Texas, there’s barbecued beef, often smoked over pecan or mesquite wood. Louisiana has both Cajun and Creole cooking featuring shrimp, oysters, crawfish and even alligator.
While all these are well known, even obvious, examples of regional cooking, one perhaps underappreciated cuisine is that of the mid-Atlantic. This area’s traditional cooking features fresh seafood ranging from bass to blue crab to oysters; wild game like pheasant and quail; and hearty produce including radishes, celery, barley and beans.
In 2015, Washington, D.C., got a new restaurant, The Dabney, that celebrates this traditional cuisine. The operation, featuring the work of chef and co-owner Jeremiah Langhorne, has been welcomed as a valuable addition to D.C.’s foodie hotspots.
Location, Location, Location
The Dabney resides in Blagden Alley, a historical strip of the city that, until a few years ago, had seen better days. Recently, though, a number of sophisticated dining spots have opened in the alley and its surrounding area. No doubt, Blagden Alley’s historical character, including century-old carriage houses and townhomes, is a draw for these restaurants.
It was certainly one for The Dabney, an operation that, as its website says, is tied to the region’s “historic food culture.” That culture and history plays out not only in the menu but also in the operation’s design and even its cooking methods.
The only way into The Dabney is through Blagden Alley itself, which is not accessible by car. Customers must walk down the brick-paved alley and enter through a side patio that is included in the space’s lease.
According to Robert Mescolotto, president of Hospitality Construction Services (HCS), which served as The Dabney’s general contractor, the restaurant’s ownership wanted to separate the patio from the activity in the alley. A simple fence and gate was not suitable, though. City permitters required a feature that would blend in with the area’s overall appearance and ambiance. A brick facade walls off the front of the patio, while the side has a ceiling-height barrier made of black-painted wood set horizontally.
Once customers enter through the side door, all eyes are immediately drawn to the same thing: a large wood-burning stone hearth that serves as the heart of the operation and the primary piece of cooking equipment in The Dabney’s display kitchen. This is a massive piece of equipment — literally the size of a small car, says Mescolotto. All through the day, The Dabney’s kitchen staff add wood to the fire, create different cooking zones by arranging coals according to temperature and build brick platforms that serve as indirect cooking surfaces.
The operation uses the hearth to produce dishes like celery root baked in the embers with brewster oats, bacon, poached egg, rosemary, watercress and sumac; pheasant and yellow-eye beans with celery, pumpernickel, pickled carrots and mustard seeds; and grilled lamb heart with potato soup, beer-pickled onions, buttermilk and horseradish.
Building this unit was one of the biggest challenges in the creation of The Dabney. One simply can’t purchase a wood-burning hearth of that size. Instead, HCS worked closely with the project’s architect and interior designer, Edit Lab at Street Sense, to research how to construct such a hearth. One major assist, it should be noted, came from the proprietors of Parts & Labor, a Baltimore-based butcher shop/restaurant that built a similar hearth of its own.
“The way it’s created,” says Mescolotto, “it’s layers upon layers of insulating factors to make it so it holds the heat. There’s the concrete, then on top there was fire brick, then soapstone, then sand instead of mortar to allow for expansion.”
According to Brian Miller, director of design strategy with Edit Lab at Street Sense, the restaurant’s design allows customers to see the hearth from literally every seat in the house, whether in the dining room or the bar area.
While the hearth is certainly impressive and attention-grabbing, the kitchen as a whole is meant to be approachable. Though the hoods are visible, the designers took steps to hide other stainless steel pieces from view or to use alternate materials.
They chose concrete countertops instead of stainless work tables, for instance, while the expediting table is an old wood table with modified legs that give it extra height. The effect is of a residential dining room table, says Miller.
The customer-facing section of the display kitchen, meanwhile, features wood shelves, which store dishes and cooking vessels. “It has a feel a little bit more of a pantry or kitchen cabinetry,” Miller says.
Indeed, historical homes in the D.C. area inspire much of The Dabney’s design. The entryway and bar, for example, have a herringbone brick floor — a common feature in the city’s older homes that’s not used much today. And materials like pine and oak that are native to the region are used throughout the restaurant.
With The Dabney’s connection to history, these materials were also chosen because they age well, says Miller. “We want something, rather than feeling its best day one, is going to feel best years down the road as it develops a really nice wear pattern and finish. As thousands of people eat there, it becomes part of that tradition that they’re tapping into,” he says.
The bar’s brick flooring, for example, will develop a different shine and level of depth along the restaurant’s natural pathways, while the solid oak bar top, as its finish wears down, will begin to feel more and more natural.
The dining room, meanwhile, has pine flooring and tables that, by design, will show their age more than hardwood might. “This is supposed to be a restaurant that shows a patina,” says Miller.
In addition to incorporating traditional and locally sourced material, The Dabney’s design also uses several reclaimed elements. Reclaimed tin roofing shingles cover the front of the bar, giving this area a rustic vibe. To make these shingles usable, HCS covered their edges with trim and sandblasted them smooth.
A more eye-catching feature is the bar back, which serves as the main barrier between the bar and dining area. Instead of using standard shelving, The Dabney has three pairs of reclaimed windows. Shelving has been built between these windows in line with the muntins, the wood grids that separate the different windowpanes. On the bar side, several of these panes have been removed, allowing the bartenders easy access to liquor bottles.
According to Miller, this setup provides a connection between the bar and the dining area. “When you are sitting in the dining room on the opposite side, we wanted you to feel a connection to the bar without the noise, to feel like you weren’t trapped in a back room,” he explains.
Another unique touch in the bar area are two tree branches that the project’s team “literally found in a guy’s yard,” Mescolotto says. The branches flank the reclaimed windows and add soft curves to an otherwise angular space. They’ve also got a practical purpose: Copper pipes and conduit come down from the ceiling at that point. The branches are used to hide them.
Old and New
As with any project, there were some challenges that sprang up during The Dabney’s construction.
One of the biggest, says Mescolotto, involves the ownership team’s commitment to using reclaimed materials when possible. Originally, the plan was to use reclaimed wood flooring in the dining room. After searching high and low, a suitable batch was located. When the flooring was actually shipped to the team a few weeks later, it was a completely different batch and entirely unsuitable: More than half was covered in lead paint, and nearly all the wood was saturated with water. It was so bad that Mescolotto didn’t even allow it on the jobsite.
As an alternative, Mescolotto found locally sourced, sustainable pine wood flooring that had an aged appearance. This alternative often makes more sense from a financial perspective, he adds. “I hate to say it, but reclaimed material is expensive...If you want to use a historic wood floor, somebody had to go find it, then selectively take it out, then strip out all the nails, then store it until you’re ready to buy it. We were able to do a lot of creative sourcing, where we take a new product and make it look old or find a product that looks old and use that in place of a lot of higher-cost materials.”
Many other challenges involved The Dabney’s building itself. The restaurant resides in a structure that combines three old townhouses, one old garage and an entirely new addition. The Dabney straddles these spaces. The bar, display kitchen and part of the dining area are in the new sections, while another part of the dining area and the back-of-the-house kitchen, which is down a flight of stairs, are in the older structures.
One of the issues this presented was an uneven floor level. According to Miller, there was a 16-inch difference between the old structure and the new. Initially, the plan was to create a ramp to transition between these two spaces. The design team dropped that plan, though, and ended up filling in the lower section of floor, trading ceiling height for a continuous flow.
With this combination of old and new, the designers also worked to ensure The Dabney didn’t feel disjointed. In both spaces, many walls are covered in plaster mixed with playground sand, giving the restaurant a slightly aged and authentic feel throughout. And since the team poured its own slab, they were able to run brick, wood and tile all together without the use of transition strips. This made the transition from one space to another less noticeable.
The Dabney’s challenges didn’t end there. The building itself has a single exhaust chase. The hood over the kitchen’s sauté station, the solid fuel hood for the wood-burning hearth, the customer restroom exhaust and dishwasher exhaust all converge at this chase. Making them all work together was a big challenge. “It was largely a matter of grinding it out, but we sacrificed some back-of-the-house ceiling height to keep the visuals in the customer area sacred,” Miller says.
The Dabney also had to coordinate its mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) plan with a cocktail lounge that was being built upstairs at the same time. These issues were limited, though, by the fact that Miller’s firm, Edit Lab at Street Sense, was also the architect for that lounge. With some extra work, the company was able to develop an MEP plan that served both operations well.
Another big source of issues: The Dabney’s interior was being constructed at the very same time that the new section of the structure was being built. As a result, Team Dabney sometimes had to revise their plans to match changes to the overall structure. In one case, Miller said, a wall shifted nearly a full foot.
“Luckily, we had incorporated pretty generous spacing for the tables for the guests, so this was a project where we weren’t hurting for inches,” says Miller. “We were able to absorb a lot of those changes before equipment got ordered, which was so dimension critical.”
With all the construction issues overcome and the design complete, The Dabney has been well received by customers and critics alike. In fact, it is a current James Beard Award semifinalist for best new restaurant, an accolade that is earned only when food and environment mesh to create an outstanding experience.
“We wanted to do something that felt like it was new but really coming out of area traditions, the same way [Chef Langhorne’s] cooking is rooted in a lot of local traditions and recipes,” said Miller. “We wanted to do the same thing with the materials, the design details and the aesthetics of The Dabney.”
- Location: Washington, D.C.
- Segment: Fine dining
- Seat Count: 75 (bar and dining room total)
- Size: 3,800 square feet
- Kitchen Design: Scott Levine, The Design Difference
- Kitchen Equipment Supplier: Ashland Equipment, Inc.
- General Contractor: Hospitality Construction Services
- Architect & Interior Design: Edit Lab at Street Sense