People used to turn up State Street from the traffic light on the 101 to get here. Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall shared a loving Valentine’s Day here. GQ’s Alan Richman praised the squab here-naming it “one of the year’s most memorable morsels”-in 1995.
“Here” is Downey’s, the legendary restaurant that turns 25 this year, and it’s still the finest of fine dining in town.
But back in 1982, John Downey didn’t think he’d make it to his five-year anniversary. “Those were insane hours, an insane workload-lunch and dinner [he stopped serving lunch more than a decade ago]. I did a fair bit of the bookkeeping. There was no computer. The menus were written on chalkboards :”
Some good early press brought in the crowds, and his fine food kept them there.
That is, until the recession in the early ’90s. “As we approached our 10th anniversary, I remember wondering if we were going to make it,” he recalled. While he currently owns the restaurant with his wife, Liz, he was in a different marriage then. “I didn’t have family help on board. Running the whole thing by myself, if I messed up, I’d have to go home and fire me.”
Downey said he almost gave up then-around the time he met Liz. “I didn’t know any of this,” she said to him. “You are stoic.”
“I dug in and stuck to my guns. I stuck to what I seemed to be able to do well-I’m stubborn,” Downey claimed. “Then Liz started working with me in the restaurant and that brightened things up considerably. She brought a lot of charm and care that had been lacking.”
Not that care was ever lacking in Downey’s kitchen. Although he admitted, “I had a reputation for being haughty, but I’m not; I just don’t feel very comfortable talking to guests,” Downey certainly knows how to make the elements of a dish converse. “I felt I blew everything out of me in those early years and settled into solid knowledge of what works,” he said. “I felt people would say I was on the cutting edge, but now I’m happy to be way back. I steer clear of the architectural cuisine, the fusions : I have no desire to go there.”
“I still have my deep-seated values-it’s always been about the quality. I never ever wanted to compromise on quality, to heck with the cost,” Downey said. That quality starts with the freshest and finest ingredients, such as produce from Carpinteria organic farmer Tom Shepherd. At a recent chef’s dinner, Downey’s served Shepherd’s Early Girl tomatoes that, if they talked, would have sung Gershwin’s “Summertime,” for eating them was easy. Sharing a plate with slivered red onions marinated to sweetness and topped with a brilliant English cheddar and a dash or two of balsamic, the dish was classic, deceptively simple, completely desirable-offering the elegance that defines the Downey’s experience.
While John Downey’s approach hasn’t changed throughout the 25 years, he insists his customers have. “Back in the foodie days, some people would hang on your every word, and want to know on which side of the mountain the basil was grown. That flattened out. Now there’s a better understanding of good, nutritious food among a lot of people. That goes hand in hand with the farmers markets. When I first opened, if I wanted mustard greens, it was a special order from Los Angeles where they had to special order from Tennessee. Now I can buy them at numerous places right at the Farmers Market in town.”
Those mustard greens are the accompaniment for what he suggests is the restaurant’s signature dish, squab with roasted garlic. Downey said, “It sums up the essence of what I’m trying to do here. It puts a smile on my face every time I do it well.” It’s the meal about which notable food critic Alan Richman wrote, “[Downey] prepares an unconscionably rich jus using squab stock, fresh thyme, and pan drippings deglazed with cider. After carving the meat from the bones, he squeezes the carcass to extract every bit of flavor, much as French chefs do when they prepare pressed duck. He adds that to the jus, which is poured over the bird. I don’t think I’ve ever had a sauce so luxurious that contained no cream.”
Other favorites Downey noted include his duck with peach chutney, and in the winter season, a ragout of lobster with local chanterelles, smoked bacon, flageolets, tomatoes, and leeks; Liz concurred, adding that the lobster rago»t is “an aromatic facial.” Downey explained, “Really it’s just a hearty fish stew brought to higher levels with those ingredients. All those elements just nestle so well; they just belong.”
Such belonging was crucial to Downey during his first days in Santa Barbara at the now-gone Penelope’s (located where Stella Mare’s is today, and infamous for having a rule that its waiters couldn’t hold conversations with guests), and will be until Downey’s takes down its shingle from State Street. As for what’s next, Downey foresees “becoming more focused on what’s available locally. I think that’s where restaurants of this caliber are going in general.”
What you won’t find at Downey’s is molecular gastronomy like that found at England’s trend-setting The Fat Duck, not that any of Downey’s customers show up expecting nitro-scrambled egg and bacon ice cream. “That ain’t food,” Downey said, literally harrumphing. “It pisses me off-don’t get me started on that.”
Instead, it’s better to finish with one of his delectable desserts, especially when Persian mulberries are in season. But, anything served on his mille-feuille will have you believing it really is a thousand sheets of the best, lightest, loveliest, no-you-can’t-have-any-of-mine pastry imaginable.
Downey’s is located at 1305 State Street. Call 966-5006 or visit downeyssb.com. Dinner is served from 5:30 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday.