While I'm still not entirely sure what Down House wants to be -- restaurant, coffee shop, bar, a combination of all three? -- I'm also not so sure that's a bad thing. The little place in the Heights is hopping along quite nicely without being pigeonholed, so perhaps a niche isn't what's needed here.
What is needed, however, is attention to service. Like another favorite, Brasil, Down House suffers mightily in this department.
Brasil was smart, though, in implementing a counter service system: Order your food and/or coffee, then linger as long as you like in its massive space. This removes some of the emphasis on the "restaurant" aspect of Brasil, mitigating any possible criticisms of its service in this area. It's easy to understand and navigate, and your food is delivered via a simple number system. (Of course, you still have to deal with the often surly employees behind the counter to actually order your food, but that's neither here nor there by this point in Brasil's long life.)
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.
It's a stumbling block, to be sure.
But where Down House does it right is in every other area: good food from a small, constantly changing menu; expertly drawn espressos and other coffee drinks; a clever cocktail list and a craft beer list that should be embraced by even the most hardcore beer nerds; a warm and welcoming interior that encourages you to linger (whether you want to or not).
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In this week's cafe review, I was more or less won over by all of these high points in the end, but I still have to ask: Am I putting too much emphasis on service at what is, essentially, a low-key cafe? Or has the "service industry" done itself a gradual disservice over the years by overlooking the operative word in its very title in favor of cute decor, clever menus and faddish foods?
To see more photos from Down House, check out our slideshow.