On a wet and windy Washington, D.C., evening in November, about two dozen eager eaters crammed into the compact back room of Mockingbird Hill, an acclaimed sherry bar with an easygoing food menu emphasizing cured ham and slippery Spanish fish. This night, though, guests had ponied up $65 each for a five-course meal prepared by temporarily itinerant chef Jeremiah Langhorne.
Langhorne, who was formerly McCrady's chef de cuisine, moved to D.C. in late 2013 to open a hearth-centered restaurant showcasing mid-Atlantic ingredients. Progress on The Dabney has been intentionally slow-going, giving Washingtonians plenty of time to speculate on what Langhorne and business partner Alex Zink, another Charleston transplant, have in store for the city.
In a series of articles chronicling the project's development, The Washington Post's Tim Carman described Langhorne's forthcoming restaurant as "one of the most highly anticipated since a certain Luxury space on Capitol Hill." Around D.C., there's no need to spell out the name of Rose's Luxury, anointed the nation's best new restaurant by Bon Appetit in 2014. Rose's is the creation of Aaron Silverman, who spent a year in the McCrady's kitchen and has hired Charleston natives as bartender and sous chef.
Whether through Silverman's design or the food media's focus, the moral of the Rose's story for many D.C. residents is that good things come from Charleston. They've tacitly begun to await the arrival of its chefs the way that children keep a lookout for Santa Claus' sleigh.
So even though the writers in attendance at Langhorne's Mockingbird Hill pop-up had been repeatedly coached not to confuse the meal with a preview of The Dabney, diners cut into an aged duck breast with chestnut, pumpkin and pawpaw seeking clues to the restaurant, now chasing a late-summer opening date. When Langhorne and a pair of sherry experts solicited questions from the nonmedia group, the first one was, "Is this like the food you'll serve at The Dabney?"
Charleston is esteemed by food lovers across the country. But it's achieved a special cachet in D.C., a city which in turn has come to occupy the imaginations of many Charleston chefs. The symbiotic relationship may well shape both dining scenes for many years to come.
During white truffle season, it's impossible to dodge truffle upsell offers in D.C. restaurants. Servers speak brightly of the ways a $50 shaving can enhance linguine, veal chops and a bowl of mushroom soup. At the right restaurant, you could probably get white truffles on your oatmeal.
Bourbon Steak executive chef Joe Palma is very comfortable in the world of white truffles and other expense-account waggles. Previously the chef of Eric Ripert's Westend Bistro in D.C., Palma last spring ended a two-year run at High Cotton for the Bourbon Steak job, partly because he has way more fun with wagyu beef and caviar than the bonhomie and brown gravy associated with Lowcountry cuisine. "We do things here we couldn't get away with in Charleston," says Palma, who's receiving excellent reviews for his light-handed, elegant dishes.
But Palma also left town because it's often easier for Charleston chefs to move out than up. "There doesn't seem to be a lot of mobility outside of opening your own restaurant," he says. "There aren't a lot of ways to stretch your legs." By contrast, a market the size of D.C. has plenty of room for chefs who want to operate on a high level without the hassles of restaurant ownership.
"I have six managers and 38 cooks," Palma says. "We're not minimally staffed, by any stretch."
"Minimally staffed" is a phrase familiar to Charleston chefs. The ongoing labor shortage has unsettled the local restaurant economy, forcing the postponement of openings and contributing to working conditions that some staffers say foster professional burnout.
"You couldn't pay me to open a restaurant in Charleston," Palma says.
Palma was in D.C. when it last experienced a restaurant stampede similar to what's now storming through Charleston. The nonstop openings, which resulted from an overripe economy, led to hasty promotions that created a few management morasses.
"There was way too much money chasing too little talent," Palma says. Ultimately, "guys who are very proficient cooks went back and became number twos, and the industry is better for it."
After a settling-down period, restaurants are starting to rage in D.C. again. But this time, the most talked-about restaurants are cheffy, neighborhood-based bistros that generally don't serve thick steaks and stiff martinis.
"Local restaurants like those in Philadelphia or Charleston, S.C., where the stroller set settles in with the small-batch-bourbon-swilling groovesters for some solid roast chicken, were as rare as bipartisan budget bills," The New York Times noted last October in its chronicle of D.C.'s ascension into the nation's pantheon of "food cities."
Many of the upscale restaurants credited with making D.C. an interesting place to eat are spinning out Asian motifs: Little Serow is a cellar of unadulterated Northern Thai food; Daikaya is devoted to ramen; and the thoroughly darling Crane & Turtle pulls techniques from Japan. Last year, Vikram Sunderam won an overdue James Beard award for his Indian cooking at Rasika.
The global orientation reflects the city's diversity. "Maybe it's just size," Langhorne says. "Charleston is a great town and I love it, but here, any night of the week, you can go and experience any kind of food. There's an awesome Laotian chef at Bangkok Golden: The first time I ate there, I tried all of these fermented sauces and weird pastes."
Much of the city's culinary energy is percolating up from the mom-and-pop joints that have always populated the D.C. restaurant landscape. But Palma believes it's been focused by a newfound interest in ingredients that tracks back to the Lowcountry.
"As horribly cliched as it is, a lot of the farm-to-table mindset made it up here from Charleston, and I think that's been really good in helping D.C. develop," he says. And since JetBlue last year introduced cheap, direct flights between the two historic cities, it's likely that avenue of influence will remain well-traveled.
At The Dabney, Langhorne will focus strictly on the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Sourcing integrity is so central to his vision that he and Zink shopped for restaurant space until they found an address that could accommodate a garden. Langhorne says his insistence on cleaving to the region's natural and cultural history derives from his Charleston experience.
"That helped me develop my entire belief system," he says. "If anything, I can say Charleston was incredibly transformative for me."
Diners in the nation's capital are already saying the same.