Downtown Offers Urbane Dining Setting

By PATTI DACEY Special to the Planet
Friday June 20, 2003

The world has been way, way too much with me lately. I have been rather beset by Issues, the details of which I am not at liberty to discuss (but be sure to ask if you bump into me on the street); I do confess, however, to some tossed curls, stamped feet, slammed doors, perhaps even a tear or two—and that’s just how my therapist has been behaving. The whole situation has left me feeling rather wrought, and longing for an appropriate venue to which I can repair to repair. I want a stylish backdrop that lends itself to the channeling of my inner diva. And, not that I’m picky or anything, but really good food and drink should be offered, too. 

Downtown, an urbane restaurant anchoring the graceful and grandly restored Frances Shattuck building in downtown Berkeley, fits the bill to a T. Indeed, as Mark McLeod, one of the partners in the venture, explains, “I see the restaurant as theater, with each participant, from the chef to the server to the diner, playing a role, and plays within plays within plays unfolding as the evening progresses.” What an ideal spot for an aging prima donna to practice her moves. 

My rapidly acculturating East Coast buddy insists that Downtown is the only restaurant in these parts with a decidedly New York feel. I find it reminiscent of what as a child I imagined adult life would be all about (along with room service and never having to make my bed). A kind of edgy energy, a buzz of deals being made, of assignations being kept, of people seeing and being seen, pervades the place. Berkeley’s movers and shakers mingle with the Ladies who Lunch during the day, while theatergoers make way for jazz aficionados and martini fans in the evening. 

The food can be quite fabulous (unsurprisingly, with alumni of Chez Panisse, Cesar’s and Bay Wolf involved in the operation). Try anything with seafood. The raw bar provides a delicious array of oysters in all their briny glory. A recent plate of succulent steamed mussels with roasted tomato, arugula and croutons had my companion and me mopping up every drop of its marvelous broth with our bread. A dish of roasted halibut, wrapped in a fig leaf with preserved Meyer lemon, served with pecan wild rice salad, organic greens and fig compote, was perfectly cooked and perfectly delectable. 

Meat eaters needn’t worry about being slighted, though. I’ve sampled the Ploughman’s Board, with its smoky house-made sausage, the grilled lamb loin chops on a bed of bulgar salad to soak up the luscious juices, the brick-oven roasted chicken with its crackling-crisp skin: all were exceptional.  

And I could happily end each and every meal for the next couple of months with the brown-sugar goodness of the butterscotch pot de creme. But that would be wrong. 

McLeod, a habitué of the late, lamented Keystone Corner, decided in the early eighties that he would eventually like to do something that combined his love of jazz with his love of food. Music is now featured Tuesday through Saturday nights (check out the Web site www.downtownrestaurant.com for the schedule), contributing to Downtown’s already convivial bar scene. The long zinc bar, presided over by a truly impressive mirror, is crowded with nattily dressed folks drinking concoctions like cosmopolitans (yes, here, in Berkeley) and listening to good music.  

And we’ll all have even more reason to venture downtown this summer. McLeod is helping to spearhead a summer film fest (with themes like Food on Film and Music on Film) using the Berkeley Rep space, and plans to tie Downtown’s food and live entertainment to the cinema fare being presented.  

For the column, Downtown contributed an elegant seafood recipe from its kitchen.