When Jeremiah Langhorne, the James Beard Award-winning chef behind the celebrated Dabney restaurant in Washington, DC, first adapted to the pandemic in March, his refined kitchen began to fill takeout orders on a mass scale. Langhorne, who co-owns the Dabney, was in survival mode, and customers were hungry for the comfort food he was serving. However, after an initially enthusiastic reception, orders dried up.
He realized the fixed $45 price might be too much for some, so he added a new option: “meat and threes” Wednesdays. For $20, people could order some catfish or fried chicken with collard greens, mac and cheese, and another side. But that concept fizzled quickly, too.
Even as other high-end restaurateurs began to reopen in the area, Langhorne put off a return to indoor dining. In July, he launched an outdoor pop-up where guests could enjoy soft shell crabs and hush puppies with a beer. The concept was popular, but not especially profitable. Langhorne, who has spent the pandemic trying to keep his restaurant afloat while also following safety protocols, became increasingly despondent.
A chef known for his use of local ingredients, he used slow weeks to go on foraging expeditions and visit his fishermen suppliers. He discovered a new way to use a local sarsaparilla root to imbue a duck dish. Finally, Langhorne decided he could stay closed no longer. On Friday, October 23, the Dabney reopened its doors with a four-course prix-fixe menu.
I spoke with Langhorne about his experiences running the restaurant during the Covid-19 pandemic. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.
When the pandemic hit in March, you switched to a takeout model. You’re a James Beard Award-winning chef. What was that experience like for you?
Overall, I wouldn’t say it’s a good one. I worked hard, really hard to get to the point where I could make food in a way that I thought it should be made. Takeout food doesn’t really fit into that category. Obviously, there are certain dishes, cuisines, things that can do well in that environment. It was very difficult for us to try to make that transition. We really had to alter our cuisine quite a bit.
In the beginning, takeout was working. And then I think people got pandemic fatigue. I think people got fatigue of everything — of life — and takeout started to drop off pretty dramatically.
Is that when you started the Summer Rental pop-up in July, and trying other things?
Yes, exactly. I have a glass-half-full outlook on things, for the most part. We have a really strong team, and I really felt like we could think our way out of it, so to speak. We were trying to come up with ideas, and maybe one of them would catch on and supplement [takeout] as much as possible.
At one point we thought, “Okay, well, maybe it’s a little bit of a heavy lift financially to be asking every guest to pay $45 for a prix-fixe takeout menu.” And that’s why we started to do the meat-and-threes thing on Wednesday — to have a good amount of food at a much cheaper price that wasn’t so fussy, that could be a meal that someone just picked up on their way home. So we tried that.
Was that successful?
For the first few Wednesdays it was, and then we started seeing it kind of drop off a little bit. I don’t think anybody really knew about it, for the most part. It didn’t really get any publicity. So it eventually got to the point where it wasn’t really worth it.
Every single time a restaurant tries something new, there’s a lot of work behind the scenes. So having crazy new themes can get exhausting pretty quickly if they’re not panning out.
Summer Rental was creative and fun. You had soft shell crab BLTs.
That was my brainchild. I loved it. My wife and I, every single summer for the past 15 years we’ve been going up to Cape Cod for a break. I travel a lot normally — well, pre-Covid — but that was our one vacation where we really did nothing. [We would just] go to little beach bars and grab seafood and just relax.
I really wanted to do something that was going to be a little more fun and also be totally safe. And so that’s where Summer Rental came from.
Did you find customers were ready to come back, especially if they could sit outside?
Summer Rental was, from a bookings point of view, successful. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as successful financially just because there’s no way to guarantee a guest average — how much money each guest is going to spend.
Some people wanted to just have a beer and some hush puppies, and some people wanted to have a full meal. So as the summer started to wind down, we decided that Fall Rental wouldn’t have the same ring. But it just didn’t make as much sense from a business standpoint, either.
You did find time to forage for new roots and check out rockfish in the Chesapeake Bay.
That’s actually been one of the silver linings. To a certain extent, I didn’t need to be there as much, and so I decided to go back to what we did at the beginning [of the Dabney] and start to visit a lot of our farmers and fishermen.
You had wanted to ride out the pandemic and were very conservative about reopening. Can you talk about your decision to reopen, which you did last Friday [October 23]?
Originally, people were like, “Oh well, maybe we’ll do this for two weeks or we’ll be back at it in a month.” I don’t think anybody anticipated it dragging out this long. I truly believed that there was going to be some sort of a solution found before we got to the point that we’re in now — and have been in for the past month.
One thing we realized, having stayed closed so much longer, [is] that we saw a lot of our colleagues operate in a way that was safe. They were able to do it, and they were following the protocols, and things were going okay.
When you get to the point where you realize this could go on indefinitely — it doesn’t make sense to stay closed.
It’s been busy?
Yeah. And it’s funny — that was one of my biggest concerns. When you have a restaurant and it’s been closed, and you don’t get to see your guests and you don’t get to see the community for that long a period of time, it really starts to make you wonder: “Is everyone gonna still wanna come? Have people changed their routines and the way they look at the world?” I was very nervous about that, but luckily we’ve been able to book up all the reservations pretty quickly.
What made you go back with a prix-fixe model?
It’s just a function of survival. With restaurants only being able to do 50 percent capacity — and that’s kind of a fallacy too, because it’s only 50 percent capacity if you have the space in your dining room to space everybody out appropriately. We don’t actually get to 50 percent capacity. We get to more like 30 percent capacity.
And the bottom line is: Every single chair really matters, and there’s a certain amount of money that we have to get out of it to survive, to even break even. So I think that’s why you see most restaurants [that operate] at a high level going to prix-fixe models, because they don’t have a choice.
Winter is coming. Do you have outdoor seating?
We have a little bit. For us, it’s been a little tough because we don’t really have the space to expand outdoors. Summer Rental was fine because the idea was to be very casual. But in order for it to be sustainable, we would really need to give full Dabney service out there at the price that we’re used to for our indoor dining. With the restrictions that have been imposed on restaurants, it’s almost impossible to really make money anymore, or to even break even in some cases. Every seat really counts, and it really matters how they’re set up.
Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.