Dressed up and still homey
By JOHNETTE RODRIGUEZ  |  February 6, 2008

DownCity | 50 Weybosset St, Providence | Mon-Fri, 11:30 am-10 pm; Fri-Sat late night menu, 10 pm-midnight; Sat, 10 am-10 pm; Sun, 9 am-10 pm | Major credit cards | Full bar
Sidewalk-level access | 401.331.9217

I’m one of those Rhode Islanders who remembers DownCity when it was more like the “diner” that used to be part of its name: a small spot on a side street with killer cornbread and a Southwestern flair to many of its breakfast and lunch items. When it expanded to offer full dinners and a bar, it maintained an eclectic menu, including American comfort foods, regional faves, and unusual ethnic dishes.
After a devastating kitchen fire two years ago, DownCity took a while to regroup and opened farther down on Weybosset in September, in quarters as chic as the restaurant’s name. The menu, overseen by executive chef Kristin Monmaney, has many imaginative and up-to-date touches, but it has retained DownCity’s down-hominess.

 There is, for example, the restaurant’s “award-winning meatloaf,” of which Bill has always been fond, plus their popular crab cakes, with a green goddess remoulade. Other hits are a char-grilled burger (with boursin and sweet potato fries), and barbecued pork rib, with a ginger plum sauce and basmati rice. Farther afield are French veal stew, lamb shish kabobs, and tuna steak Niçoise (atop a traditional salad of greens, potatoes, boiled eggs, olives, and green beans).
But we were seeking comfort food on a cold windy night, and Bill wouldn’t budge from the penne baked with grilled chicken ($19.50). How many things did he love about this? The four cheeses, fresh cream, sliced grape tomatoes, and fresh corn kernels made it an uptown mac ’n’ cheese that tickled his taste buds.
I considered the tuna, but chose a special of swordfish with pineapple/tomato salsa ($21.50). The buttermilk mashed potatoes accompanying the fish definitely filled the comfort quotient, as did the pineapple chunks. The sword itself was a tad dry, even though it looked pink inside. Was it the particular cut or the way of cooking? It just wasn’t as buttery as I dreamed it would be.
But I’ve jumped way ahead into our entrées. We had two pre-dinner courses, beginning with hot chocolate for me, tea and rum for Bill, and a nice basket of foccacia with hummus and a blackberry muffin left from Sunday brunch. All were warming and good.
For appetizers, we landed on the Spanish tapas platter ($10.50), with red wine meatballs, potato-and-onion frittata, and spinach/gouda empanadillas; and a California Caesar salad ($9.50). The latter came plated (or rather plattered) separately, and we could hardly believe the size of it. The California influence came across in the tempura-ed artichoke hearts, toasted pepitas, and crumbled goat cheese. The dressing seemed like a Dijon vinaigrette, with no hint of anchovy, but then, it’s California-style.
The tapas won us over on two out of three. Bill had expected a bourguignon-like melt-in-your-mouth meatball, but he found them quite dry. The frittata was nicely thick and eggy, with thin potatoes on top and plenty of onions inside. The two empanadillas were crispy turnovers filled with spinach and cheese, topped with plenty of boursin. Delish!
During courses, I roamed the two-level space, fascinated by the transformation of a former stationery store into a handsome lounge/restaurant/meeting place. One of the most successful things about the décor is the combining of traditional 19th-century touches — white molding, woodwork, and an old-fashioned stairway to the mezzanine (white railings and banister) — with contemporary coral wall-fabric and fanciful modern light fixtures.
Tall windows, two large mirrors, and a huge flat-screen TV at the bar break up the two-story side of DownCity’s space; silver sunbursts line the raw brick wall where we sat, under the mezzanine. The two unisex bathrooms labeled “Either/Or” also captured our fancy, with their sparkling red and gold glass tiles and their ultra-modern sinks: a molded piece of glass slides into a porcelain tank. It’s an illusion worthy of Harry Potter.
From the very tempting dessert list of banana splits and blondie sundaes, cheesecakes, and fruit crisps, we settled on a simple crème brulée ($7.50), which was orange-ginger-flavored that evening. The crème was very creamy; the brulée not too thick, but neither of us could detect ginger and only a hint of orange.
The wine list seemed carefully selected; the cocktail list hilariously inventive. Take your cue from Effen vodka or the names of local celebrity drag queens Sabrina Blaze and Kitty Litter.
The staff is cheery and friendly, with general manager Abby Cabral setting the tone. DownCity has held onto its sense of fun and hominess, even in its upscale digs. And the menu is still broad enough — weekend brunches, weekday lunches and every-night dinners — that “you can get anything you want,” excepting Abby.

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