“When we knew we were going to close, we thought we’d just disappear into the sunset,” John Downey said about his recent announcement to retire. “Liz [his wife and stalwart in the front of the house] and I thought after a week people would say, ‘Downey’s, didn’t they used to be on State Street?’ Instead the outpouring of support has been overwhelming; we’re honestly touched by it. We take it as a validation of our work the last 35 years.”
Downey first hung his shingle on State Street in 1982. That’s so many eons ago, it’s the year the Commodore 64 revolutionized home computing (are you reading this on your phone?). But in those three-odd decades, Downey has exemplified what fine dining means for generations of Santa Barbarans and visitors (he tells a great story of a cop letting him out of a traffic infraction because of the tax dollars he brought to the town). A leader in farm-to-table before the marketers wrung the meaning out of it, Downey had Tom Shepherd’s name on his menu years before veggie provenance was hip.
And while the squab he was once acclaimed for has gone “out of fashion,” as he put it, “duck is flying off the shelves. On average we probably serve 36 a week, for 50 weeks a year times 35 years — there are a lot of ducks quacking a huge sigh of relief we’re going out of business.”
I had to ask if he thought fine dining — in this age of casual eateries — was dead. “I don’t think it is,” he offered. “I think there will always be a handful of people. But I can’t say for the past few years business has been booming.” Nonetheless, he pointed to the praise from online reviews, adding, “What we see is, ‘What a relief to be able to carry [on] a conversation.’ We like to offer something genteel to people. I know it’s not for all — so many people want the buzz, the loud, the happening. If I had been a better businessperson, I’d have maybe gone with that trend, but I’ve always avoided trends. I just keep wanting to do what I do. Every plate that goes out, I want it to say, ‘This is the best I can do.’” They sure do — Downey’s won the Independent’s second lifetime Foodie Award back in 2011, when it was a mere 29-year-old.
Downey’s English modesty showed when he quipped: “I’m either really smart or really stupid to have been here 35 years.” He never really considered opening that more affordable café, or moving, or expanding. “I’ve always thought Santa Barbara isn’t big enough, there’s not a large enough population, to support anything large. I have 16 tables. Yes, on a Saturday night I might use them all twice. But during the week I might not use them all once. Why would I want to expand next door when I can’t fill the tables I’ve got?”
John and Liz found that the hardest part of closing was telling the loyal staff, all of whom agreed to stay until the end (they’re leaving that date a bit of a mystery to avoid a last-night crush). He added, “We feel a strong sense of responsibility to the people who rely on me as captain; remember, I’m an old Navy guy.” He hopes the new owner (hint: it’s a current GM coming over from another long-running S.B. restaurant) keeps many of them on.
Are they sorry to see it go? The answer is a classic, “Yes, but,” as Downey explained, “Liz has never known me without the restaurant. I could be a whole different person without this.” Santa Barbara will certainly be wholly different.
Don’t miss your chance at the last few tables at Downey’s (1305 State St.), (805) 966-5006, downeyssb.com.