An Invigorating Brunch at a Reinvigorated Down House

"I can't believe this was only $14," I marveled as I left $20 on the table at Down House after occupying one of its booths for several hours over brunch this past Sunday morning. We'd just eaten two huge plates of excellent food -- much of it from local producers -- accompanied by a carafe of French press coffee and a fresh-squeezed glass of orange juice.

"I know. Can you believe it?" echoed my best friend. "Remember when you used to pay $20 a plate for next to nothing here?" I do indeed. When I reviewed Down House one year ago, I was impressed with the food and the atmosphere -- but not the prices, nor the surly service. And I wasn't sure that Down House itself even knew what it wanted to be: a full-service restaurant? A casual cafe? A coffee shop? A bar? All I knew was that it was confusing, and that the staff seemed to be confused too:

Where Down House goes wrong is by having table service, believe it or not. You'd think this would be a bonus -- people waiting on you at a coffee shop/bar? Sure! -- but not when it's the only way of getting menus, silverware, drinks, food. Because the table service waxes and wanes from superbly attentive to blitheringly oblivious, you're never quite sure how long you're going to wait for your meal or even the best way to get your waiter's attention.

Thankfully, all this has changed. Like Plonk -- which I also visited a year after its initial review to find that the kitchen had happily found its footing -- Down House has become the confident, competent neighborhood spot I'd always hoped it could become.

Before I had brunch this weekend, I'd dropped into Down House very quickly a couple of weeks ago to get a pint of Wealth & Taste. Down House was one of the few bars in town to get the Deep Ellum limited-edition brew, and I only expected to stay long enough for the pint before moving on. But I found myself drawn in by the greatly expanded cocktail menu and the on-point service.

"I've got to come back here for food," I told my drinking buddy that night as I perused the rest of the menu. The prices had dropped considerably, and the plates looked good. There was even an option to "build your own breakfast," with a little from Columns A, B and C at $2, $3 and $4 a selection. Of course, that can get a tad expensive. But the option itself is indicative of Down House's intrinsically useful nature: The restaurant is open every single day from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m., it offers both breakfast and lunch from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day, and you can get coffee and/or cocktails at nearly any time of the day or night.

It was coffee that we grabbed on Sunday morning as we waited for our table to be ready. At peak brunch time -- 11 a.m. -- we only waited 20 minutes. It was astonishing. And the newly built patio wasn't even full, which meant that we could have been seated even sooner if we'd decided to sit under one of Down House's colorful umbrellas.

Just a few minutes after receiving two cortados across the bar from a friendly barista, our table was ready. We ordered another round of coffee -- this time in a French press -- and settled on splitting the Vermonter and a plate of breakfast tacos.

At $10 for the two tacos, it would be easy to think that Down House's prices haven't gone down at all -- but you'd be wrong. The tacos are nearly burrito size and come with a side of black beans or home fries. Even better: You get to pick and choose between an assortment of different tacos for your plate. We chose the venison sausage (which -- sorry, Goode Company Taqueria -- is now my favorite venison sausage breakfast item in town) and the roasted red pepper taco with cherry tomatoes and goat cheese.

The Vermonter ($8) came with just as much food: A fried egg sandwich on an English muffin from local baker Bread & Batter along with Grafton Cheddar cheese and a jade-colored slice of tart green tomato. Roughly diced hunks of fatty bacon hid under the blanket of cheese, and the dark yellow yolk proved an excellent dipping sauce for the side of well-seasoned home fries. Newly installed chef Benjy Mason, who had no culinary training at all only two short years ago, has proven that he has the chops to keep the food coming out of Down House's kitchen as reliably excellent as its cocktails and coffee.

And throughout our entire long brunch -- catching up and slowly sipping the excellent coffee that Down House buys from Cuvee in Austin -- our waitress was a gem. She never rushed us out of our seats despite the wait at the front door, and she was never more than a whisper away when we needed something.

Although it's a rare thing to revisit a restaurant a year later and find it so drastically improved as Down House, it's a heartening thing when it does happen.

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Katharine Shilcutt