Two brothers, a restaurant, and A Downtown Homecoming
By Robin Sutton Anders
Is Dave Henderson passionate about restaurants? “People ask me that all the time,” he says. After all, his tap house and oyster bar, The Water Dog, was named “Restaurant of the Year” for the entire state by the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association.
“But the answer is no.” Dave is quick to explain: “I’m passionate about community building, and restaurants are just one of the ways you can build a stronger and better community.”
A Lynchburg native, Dave had zero restaurant experience when he and his wife decided he would quit his corporate job, sell their house, pull their kids out of school, and move the entire family from St. Louis back to Dave’s childhood home.
But what he lacked in experience, Dave made up for in vision. And the prior years he’d spent traveling for work showed him what Lynchburg was missing.
“Downtown really felt like an opportunity to make something great happen. We had a few great restaurants here, but they were white-tablecloth kind of places,” he says. “I imagined a place where family and friends could come together over beer and some oysters. Where they could sit down and enjoy themselves without worrying about what their kids are doing. Where they might stay an hour or four to five hours. I wanted a place where people felt at home.”
Five years later, The Water Dog brings a new layer of energy to downtown, as other businesses have popped up within walking distance. “Today, we have the kind of downtown where people leave their house at night and may not know where they’re going to dinner, but they know they’re going downtown,” Dave says.
They might go to El Jefe for tacos. Or 7 Rooftop Bar for a cocktail with spectacular city views. Or Bootleggers for a burger with a side of tots.
Or they might venture over to Dave’s own The Glass House to hear live music. “I never thought I’d own a music venue, but it’s right across the street from us,” he says. “It became available in 2019, and we thought it was a great opportunity to open up the music scene downtown.”
Lynchburg is the same accessible, tight-knit community Dave remembers from his childhood, and it’s important to both him and his brother Chris—who also happens to be his business partner and general manager—to give back as much as they can. “I honestly believe that the reason we won the award was because of the impact we try to make in the community,” Dave says.
The Water Dog hosts free movies in the park, where all are welcome. They bought every practice jersey for all 600 kids in the Central Virginia soccer organization. And at The Glass House on Thursdays, all the proceeds are donated to a different, local nonprofit.
“We’ve formed great relationships within the city,” says Dave, who sits on the Downtown Lynchburg Association board. “If I were still in the corporate world, I never would have had those experiences. I’d be a cog in the machinery of corporate life. There, I don’t know how much of a difference I would have made in the world. Here, I feel like we’ve made a difference.”
A Love for Virginia Oysters
Back at The Water Dog, where even the spice combinations and the salad dressings are made in-house, Dave is proudest of his oysters—sourced from all along the east coast, including Canada. “I’m an oyster guy, and these are the best in the region,” he says. He likes to talk to guests about how the varieties are different and why they matter. But his favorite part might be making recommendations for pairings from their 36 craft beers on tap.
Dave remembers the day he first met with a beer distributor for The Water Dog. “When I told him I wanted to have 36 taps available, he said that was way too many. Then when he asked me how many taps I’d reserve for the ‘big beers,’ and I said none, he said, ‘Well, you’re going to fail.’”
But from the first day it opened, The Water Dog was slammed. “We have 5,600 square feet, and until the pandemic, we were shoulder-to-shoulder.” For Henderson, that was sign enough of their success. “I never set out to win awards,” he says. “I just wanted to open a restaurant where I would want to hang out.”
Robin Sutton Anders is a Greensboro, N.C.-based writer and the managing editor of Verdant Word Communications.