Closing Time: Santa Barbara’s Downey’s Restaurant to End 35-Year Run

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 7/24/17


John and Liz Downey (credit: Phil Downey)
In 1982, when John Downey took over an existing restaurant at 1305 State Street in Santa Barbara, there was a piece of furniture he didn’t really want.  “It was a big old English armoire that they’d been using as a coat rack,” the chef recalls.
When he overhauled the restaurant three years later, he took it home. “But I’d come home, and I’d see this thing there every single day, and it was like I couldn’t get away from the restaurant. So I thought, ‘I have to sell it,’ and I put it in the want ads.”
 
The only woman who answered that ad bought it. Then she started dating the chef. And then she married him.
 
John Downey opens his restaurant in 1982
John and Liz Downey would go on to become one of the most revered and respected culinary teams in town. To this day, their intimate restaurant, with its pastoral paintings on the walls and its fresh-cut flowers on the white linen tabletops and its picture windows that peek at the street, remains one of Santa Barbara County’s best. And next month, 35 years after John Downey put his name on the menu, the chef is hanging up his coat and Downey’s is closing its doors for good.
“We are going to cook for each other and eat together, like real people,” Mrs. Downey jokes. “It’s very exciting.”
 
Truth is, for the length of Downey’s' run, the two have been at their restaurant posts almost every single night. Now, with son Phil and daughter Nina in college and out of the house, the couple says they’re ready for the next chapter of their lives.
 
The Santa Barbara food scene, of course, will lose one of its most skilled players. John Downey’s knack for the kitchen was obvious well us before he left Penelope’s (it’s known as Stella Mare’s now) to open up his eponymous eatery downtown. He’d become a chef at the age of 12 in his native England. “My teacher there instilled integrity – respecting the ingredients you’re using and how you prepare them, seeing them as gifts,” Mr. Downey recalls. “’Just do it right,’” he’d say. By 19, John Downey was cooking for the Queen aboard the Queen Elizabeth II ocean liner.
 
The Downey's dining room today (credit: Phil Downey)
He settled in New York in the early 1970s, where he worked at fine French restaurants and became enamored with a new dawn in American fine dining. He moved to Santa Barbara in the late 70s. And 10 years after he opened his own restaurant, he met that pretty armoire shopper who’d become his wife and business partner.
 
When he reminisces about 35 years in Santa Barbara, John Downey muses, in a tone that’s almost bittersweet, “We could be the last of the old guard.” If there was an early trendsetter in the now modish farm-to-fork movement, it was Downey’s. Sustainability, organic ingredients, local produce – these have always been staples of the Downey’s experience. “I think I was one of the first chefs to start utilizing the farmers’ market, really,” he says.
 
His style has always hinged on seeking perfection. “I tend to micromanage,” he admits. “I want to do it my way and I want it done right.” And, as a pair, the Downeys have always leaned toward the charming and quaint. “Ours is more of a sit-down style, where you can enjoy nice conversation in a calm atmosphere. That’s our niche.”
 
But things change. While it’s true that the timing for retirement feels right for the Downeys, their departure coincides with a shift in how food is made and how people eat. “We’ve seen the dining scene in Santa Barbara change a lot, even within the last five to seven years,” Mr. Downey says. “There are a lot more small, quick, throw-together places. If it’s loud, it’s good. And that’s not for us.”
 
There’s less room today, the chef laments, for cooking that’s complex. “By the time I finish a duck demi-glace into a cabernet reduction, that sauce could be three days in the making,” he says. “People are not doing that anymore.”
 
“It’s an endurance sport,” his wife interjects, with a laugh.
 
“And it makes business harder,” he adds.
 
That cabernet sauce, by the way, is part of John Downey’s Grilled Duck, a best seller, served with turnips, leeks and exotic grains. It’s his wife’s favorite. He’s partial to his squab preparation, and to the seasonal sea bass and lobster that he festoons with a ragout of chanterelles, shell beans and smoked bacon. “You eat it with a spoon and you beg for more bread to soak it all up,” he declares. “Every time I make it, I say, ‘Damn, I wish was eating this!’"
 
John Downey's Lobster & Sea Bass Ragout (credit: John Downey)
John Downey's Local Spiny Lobster w/Local Papaya & Three-Citrus Dressing (credit: Phil Downey)
John & Liz Downey's favorite peach dessert: two layers of almond meringue, house made peach ice cream, toasted almonds, strawberry coulis and fresh peaches on top (credit: Shelly Vinson-Contreras)
The Downey’s menu, actually, has always mirrored the sophistication of the restaurant. Driven purely by what’s available, it features just a handful of carefully constructed dishes. Appetizers often include a lobster and angel hair salad with asparagus and sundried tomatoes, or local mussels with tiny black lentils and mild curry dressing. Entrees range from Hawaiian ahi with mango-cucumber salsa and king salmon with parsley potatoes to natural Angus filet mignon in a balsamic sauce to Colorado lamb loin with garlic and local green beans. Downey’s “Taste of Santa Barbara” menu rotates daily: four courses that end with homemade dessert presented on a cart.

End of an era: Downey's closing around the end of August (my pic)
Mrs. Downey has always had creative control over the wine list, considered one of the most diverse in town and always “geared toward John’s cuisine,” she says: bubblies and crisp whites for the salads and fish, syrahs and Bordeaux reds for the proteins. Mrs. Downey never had formal training, but “I’ve always had a really good sense of smell and a really good sense of taste.” And her sit-down tastings with a select group of local wine reps, every single Tuesday, “really taught me a lot. It’s remarkable how many wines I’ve tasted!"

The Downeys, who began thinking about retirement three years ago, have sold their restaurant to a fellow member of the Santa Barbara restaurant scene. Mr. Downey says the new owner will likely change the name and “change the concept, make it more casual.”
 
Once Downey’s closes its doors at the end of August, the couple is not sure they’ll remain in Santa Barbara; their kids are currently in college in Northern California and Washington State. The pair is very satisfied, though, with their 35-year run here. “It’s been a source of pride to be part of Santa Barbara’s restaurant community,” says Mr. Downey.
 
And that big old English armoire? It’s still at home.
 
 
Downey's, 1305 State Street, Santa Barbara. 805-966-5006. downeyssb.com
 
 
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