Food News

Farewell, DownCity

A quirky and enduring Downtown eatery closes

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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.

Comments

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JJFerreira

I have long patronized DownCity since it's reincarnation in 2006. I loved their original menu coupled with the wonderful aesthetic of the 50 Weybosset location. My partner and I enjoyed many pleasant dinners and brunches there and we didn't feel that anything was amiss.

When we heard about the Gordon Ramsay makeover, our reaction was one of confusion and disbelief. What exactly was wrong with the place that it needed a "reality TV" makeover? It wasn't until four months ago that we were finally able to visit the place and we discovered that, while certain changes had been an improvement, such as the Appetizer Trio (especially the fried oysters), the changes to the menu were less than appealing and the change to the "world famous meatloaf" destroyed the pleasantly moist diner special with small individual meat loaves that proved to be salty and overly firm & dense. It wasn't the same place we'd fallen in love with.

By our last visit early in the Autumn, it was apparent the slide was well under way. Our waitress, while as accommodating as she could be, ended up having to list everything on the menu "they were out of" that night. Her unspoken communication made it clear that this was not an exception but, rather, the rule. The meal we ended up with was, as expected from the lack of available choices, below standard.

I am sorry Ms. Cabral chose to mess with success and alter the menu, forgetting that for most of DownCity's clients, it and not the upscale location was the principal draw. In a city that's become a foodie destination, the loss of DownCity will barely register with all of the other offerings available. But for the GLBT community, along with those who truly made DownCity a regular destination, this was a senseless loss for which there is no rational explanation.

Saturday, December 31, 2011
Paddy1160

They deserved to be closed the food sucked and the service was fair at best

Wednesday, January 25, 2012
maxdadmark

I honestly don't know what the surprise was all about. I am a 33-year resident and huge fan of Providence, and happen to have been the first waiter at DownCity Diner when it opened at its original location at 111 Eddy Street (not Weybosset). It was a breakfast and lunch place, no liquor, and quickly very popular with people who worked downtown and the LGBT community. Eventually original owner Anthony Salemme (never mentioned in the article) introduced Providence to menu items inspired by his world travels without straying too much from the diner theme (remember the Strata? Huevos Rancheros?). As the customers began to beg for Anthony to expand to a dinner menu, the place was always overflowing. And expand it did. He banged out into the derelict dress shop on the corner of Weybosset, and the old banner that flew over the Eddy Street entrance was put into storage. It was a great success. After 1995 Paul Shire was brought in to manage the kitchen at dinner and made partner, but the bar slowly became the focus at night. By the time Anthony sold the place in 1995, the food quality was already suffering. I don't know what the new owners' restaurant experience was (bar tending, banking?) but we never really got to see it shine due to the fire a year later. When it reopened, it was a mishmash of cuisines, not of it special. Gordon Ramsey was spot on in his comments. Soggy calamari swimming in oil, chicken paillard fried into leather, under cooked crab cakes, crappy service, and a filthy kitchen. Waitstaff and kitchen staff were loudly criticized in front of customers. Very bad vibe. But boy was it popular with the bar patrons. Although the meatloaf was gone on the new menu, I think Ramsey breathed some life into this place. Ultimately, it was the huge amount of debt hanging over the owners' heads that brought them down, but this place had had its zenith years earlier.

Monday, February 27, 2012
mikeology

It's easy to blame amateur management, a struggling chef, or a hit-and-run celebrity makeover. But DownCity faced serious external challenges: The closure of the Arcade in 2008; the failure of a developer to rebuild nearby 35 Weybosset as promised; and a recessionary die-off among downtown condos and small merchants.

DC management's hands were tied: Given the recession, they could not have had sufficient cash flow to fix problems that might have been easy to fix during the boom years.

The LGBT community in Providence shall find other restaurants, but the departure of DC adds to a hole in the Financial District that will grow further with the relocation of Bank of America.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Disgusted

This episode of Kitchen Nightmares oozed suber dyke bitch. The "owner" (she was really just a partner) was the most obnoxious, butch bitch, ever! Does RI only have homos?! Where the hell are all the straight people? They NEEDED to be shut down. YAY!

Saturday, July 7, 2012
cincyreds

Just caught the KN episode.

I'm glad to see this place gone.

Not everyone thinks catering to the LGBT community is such an honorable venture. Frankly, I think it's disgusting. Drag lunch? Uuuugh.

Abby is/was a raging dyke bitch with a typical Rhode Island attitude.

You normally don't like hearing about any business closing, but this is one that needed to go for many reasons. Good riddance.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012
bmancan

why dont you people who loved the crap food there wake up and watch kitchen nightmares ,,they were 1 million in debt ,,,,HELLO

Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Limoguy

HaHa! 2 years after KN I get to watch it and laugh!

Abby was manager at Union Station Brewery and fired me over nothing.

Too bad for the others but she was a beeeeeotch so haha Abby!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013
paulcaesar

Thank god this restaurant closed down. It just shows how bad egotistical lesbians screw up this world. Abby obvious has a justified inferiority complex. What a loser

Friday, June 7, 2013