Back in May, Spike TV’s newest series, “Bar Rescue,” came to Philadelphia to take on Downey’s Pub and Restaurant at Front and South. They sent in a restaurant turnaround artist, an experienced Irish chef, and a bar guy. They should have sent in FEMA.
When the show airs on Sunday night, July 24, at 10 PM, you’ll see why.
“This was absolutely the worst and dirtiest restaurant I’ve ever set foot in,” says Brian Duffy, the chef who has helmed the kitchens of the Shanachie Irish Pub and Restaurant in Ambler, the Kildare’s Irish Pub chain, and once, many years ago, Downey’s.
“There was trash in the hallways. Dead lobsters everywhere. The walk-in fridge was more like an air conditioner. The products in there were rancid. It was 52 degrees and it’s supposed to be under 40. It’s like throwing a festival for bacteria,” says Duffy, the culinary expert who served as menu doctor for two previous struggling bars in the series.
Few are struggling as much as Downey’s, once a Philly Irish institution during the decade’s long reign of the late Jack Downey. Two days before St. Patrick’s Day this year, Philadelphia health inspectors shut down the place for 51 health code violations. It opened two days later, but will be re-inspected in September.
Owner/chef Domenico Centofanti is already in financial trouble. The bar could face sheriff’s sale because Centofanti owes the city more than $100,000 in back taxes. Beset by lawsuits—including from unpaid employees—Centofanti filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last September.
What Gordon Ramsey is to “Kitchen Nightmares,” Jon Taffer is to “Bar Rescue.” One of the country’s top restaurant and bar consultants, Taffer, the brains behind Pulsations and Rainforest Café, specializes in giving last-chance establishments one more chance. Spike calls him “the man to call when your bar is on the rocks.” And like Ramsey, his style is in-your-face.
“He’s tough to take, but he knows what he’s doing,” says Duffy. “Jon’s a very scientific man. He even designs menu based on studies of where the eye goes and what your thoughts are when you’re reading it.”
The third man on the Downey’s team was Keith Raimondi, whiskey maven from Iron Chef Jose Garces’ Village Whiskey on South 20th Street. (The show also hired a retired health inspector to give the place a once-over.)
Three guys, five days. That’s all the time they got to raise the bar on Downey’s, which shut down for the makeover. “There was no bar manager, no general manager, no chef, just the three of us,” says Duffy. Plus the crew that came in to clean the kitchen.
“The first thing I did was look at the menu and it was funny, because it still had some of my items from when I was the chef,” Duffy says. But it also had veal parm and other Italian dishes. “They had to go. It just didn’t make sense. So we added some Irish stuff, simple fun stuff that was more appropriate.”
Spike TV paid for new walk-ins, a stove (“When we started cleaning the stove the whole thing collapsed on itself,” says Duffy) and other equipment, as well as new menus and uniforms for the wait staff. “It was painted inside and the bar was reorganized,” says Duffy, who is now corporate executive chef for Seafood America in Warminster, a supplier of fresh and frozen seafood products to retail stores.
Duffy worked with the staff on establishing schedules for daily and weekly cleaning, creating prep lists and other organizational tools, and worked closely with Domenic Centofanti—that is to say, engaged in screaming matches with the chef-owner—to help get the kitchen back on track. “It’s really a shame, because Dom is an amazing chef,” says Duffy.
The show ends with the major re-launch, when even the health inspector Spike hired “couldn’t believe it” when he not only re-inspected the place but also ate there, says Duffy.
But this particular bar rescue may have been too little, too late. Not only is Centofanti facing some high legal hurdles, some of what was done appears to have been undone, Duffy says.
“I thought Dom and had kind of gotten through to each other, but we left on a Thursday and the old menu was back up on Friday morning,” he says.
Bar Rescue’s Downey’s episode airs Sunday, July 24, at 10 PM, on Spike TV. Check your local listings. And keep an eye out for some familiar Irish faces. Besides Duffy, local singer John Byrne made an appearance on the show.