Food News

Farewell, DownCity

A quirky and enduring Downtown eatery closes

John Taraborelli
Posted
The DownCity team (L-R): Executive Chef James Bjurman, Owner Rico Conforti, Owner/General Manager Abby Cabral Photo by Mike Braca

On Saturday, December 10, DownCity closed, apparently for good. It’s been a long and tumultuous ride for the restaurant, which began as Downcity Diner in 1990. It survived a 2006 fire which forced it to vacate its original Weybosset Street home and moved to its current location at 50 Weybosset. It endured a true nightmare when celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay came to town for an installment of his hit show Kitchen Nightmares that aired last February. The episode chronicled Ramsay’s attempts to turn the struggling restaurant around while butting heads with current owner Abby Cabral. (She bought it from the original owner in 2005.) Now, the ride is over.

Over the years, DownCity established a loyal and passionate following, particularly among the LGBT community, as is to be expected of a restaurant that often posted a drag queen in full regalia at the hostess stand and featured a popular “Drag Brunch.”

DownCity was not just a niche restaurant, however – it was also a good value. Known for huge portions and its signature meatloaf, it had for years delivered comfortingly familiar food with some creative touches at fair prices. The atmosphere was what large, downtown restaurants in any city should be: spacious, chic, lively but not too loud, hospitable for a full dinner or a quick drink. In short, it offered a sophisticated night out without breaking the bank.

That is why it’s so difficult to understand DownCity’s demise. In all the times I had been there throughout the years, I never once saw the place empty. I never heard any bad reviews beyond the garden variety complaints that every restaurant gets. I never had a bad meal there. So what happened?

In an interview with our magazine this past February, Cabral admitted, “We had been struggling. Like everyone else, we were hit with the bad economy and didn’t know how to break out of the slump we were in.” When the episode aired, it was abundantly clear that her leadership could be tempestuous (she didn’t even want to be on the show – her business partner Rico Conforti pushed for it – and she repeatedly threw Ramsay out) and the relationships within the business were often tense and tumultuous.

The show revealed problems in the kitchen as well. “We have this gorgeous new spot, but the menu was very old fashioned,” Cabral admitted in her interview. “Some restaurants are known for their old fashioned menus, but in our case it just didn’t match the space.” Ramsay helped to retool and update the food.

What was supposed to come out of all this was a stronger, rejuvenated DownCity. “I think 2011 is the year that DownCity makes its comeback,” Cabral speculated after the overhaul. And indeed, for a little while the restaurant was once again the buzz of the city’s dining scene.

The anecdotal evidence, however, suggested that DownCity 2.0 was not necessarily primed for a comeback. Complaints started to circulate, with some of the restaurant’s faithful lamenting that Ramsay had “ruined” the place. It seemed like a valid consideration. Personally, I never understood why they called in Ramsay in the first place. Sure, everyone struggled with the bad economy, but why was a restaurant that seemingly enjoyed a good reputation offering itself up as a “nightmare,” airing its dirty laundry on national television. Were things so dire as to require such drastic intervention?

No matter, the comeback never materialized and now DownCity is gone. Maybe the team behind it was just burned out. Maybe that cult following was not enough to cover the cost of running such a large restaurant in a prime location. Maybe even the Michelin-starred Ramsay couldn’t break that self-proclaimed slump.

I stopped in for dinner on its final night, and the qualities of both the restaurant’s success and its demise were on display. Our waitress was visibly upset, which was completely understandable given the circumstances, but it noticeably affected her service. She began our meal by very bluntly telling us they were out of a lot of menu items. She seemed frustrated and inattentive – again, completely forgivable in this situation, but it was painfully obvious this was not the first bad night she’d had there.

The kitchen wasn’t at its best either. Giving some license for the lack of so many menu items, the wait was still quite long for a dining room that wasn’t overly busy, and the food was underwhelming. But there was still evidence of the old, vibrant DownCity. It seemed as if well-wishers were stopping by to pay their respects throughout the night, and a boisterous crowd at the bar cheered for Cabral and chanted her name. And, of course, there was still a drag queen at the hostess stand.

I’m not sure what lesson there is to be learned from the sad end of DownCity, but there’s no doubt that it will be missed. I can only hope such a spectacular Downtown space doesn’t sit vacant for long.