It’s not easy to describe Steve’s Downtown Deli & Bakery.
Considering the menu alone, it has elements of a classic diner, a health-food co-op, a French bistro, a soul food joint, and a big city deli. Add in the atmosphere and you may be uncertain whether you’re in a restaurant, record store, or campus coffee shop.
The only word for it is “cool.” Not intimidatingly so, but the kind of cool that makes you cool too by association. It’s an experience, and one that you’ll want to repeat as often as possible once you’ve tried it for yourself.
Part of Steve’s Downtown’s eclectic sense of identity is due to the building space itself, which has a long history of existential crises. Its full story isn’t known, but it started life as a dress shop when the building first opened, served as part of the City Auditorium in the 50s and 60s, and eventually became an art gallery at the hands of James Patterson, who later converted it to a sandwich shop before selling the business to current owner, Steve Long.
“A long time ago an older couple came in here with a story that their daughter had been in some big dance production at the city auditorium.” Long says, relating one of his favorite stories about the space’s history. “They said the dressing room was in my kitchen. And The Who played at City Auditorium also, in the mid to late 60’s. So, same dressing room, right?”
It’s easy to see why this anecdote brings Long, who (like his building) also has a history in art and music, so much enjoyment. The vintage record sleeves lining the walls and the carefully curated playlist drifting over the speakers reflect his passion for the best tunes of the 60’s and 70’s.
It’s actually difficult to imagine Long working at anyplace other than his namesake, though in fact he was the founding head baker at Broad Street Café, did a stint at BRAVO!, and for many years could be found in the kitchen at High Noon Café. That experience certainly served him well when Patterson, owner of the sandwich shop that eventually became Steve’s, brought him in as manager in 2001.
Shortly afterward—in late 2004—Patterson decided he was ready to sell the restaurant, and Long decided to buy it. Trusting his loyal customer base and his own excellent skills in the kitchen, he put the entire purchase on a credit card and was up and running in a matter of weeks. Within six months he’d paid off the card, and he’s been going strong ever since.
His customers are so loyal and enthusiastic, in fact, that he’s regularly asked why he doesn’t relocate somewhere larger and busier, where he could stay open for dinner and for 7 days a week. But he’s happy where he is.
“I’m just not a large-scale type of person,” Long explains. “I’ve done a lot of music and art in the past, and this is small and personal enough that it can be another sort of expression. I have a lot of fun here.”
A 2nd Location
He does actually have a second location, only a few blocks away on Lamar Street, that he opened several years ago when the downtown business environment seemed likely to move in that direction. But shortly afterward, the renovation of Capital Towers led to a surge back into the area directly around the original Steve’s location, and it has continued to grow. So much so, in fact, that he and his wife Julie—who runs the Lamar Street location—are now dreaming of re-consolidating the two.
“It can’t go on forever,” Long says. “There’s not much of a kitchen down there, but she has a big oven. I don’t have an oven down here, but I have a kitchen. So I’ll cook plate lunch stuff and soup, haul it down there, pick up focaccia and cookies and haul it up here. It’s just ridiculous. I used to have a bicycle to go back and forth, I looked like such an idiot. I got rid of that. Cute, but dumb.”
The back and forth, while exhausting, is necessary because almost everything on the menu at Steve’s is made from scratch. After years of working together and combining their shared experience and skills, Steve and Julie have largely settled on a system wherein she does most of the baking and he handles most of the cooking.
It’s all done with an attention to detail and a touch of creativity that is missing from most restaurants today, and really only possible on the smaller scale on which Steve’s operates. But, along with the atmosphere, this dedicated approach to high quality food is what keeps their customers coming back day after day, and year after year.
“I think if the personnel at a restaurant care a good bit about the preparation of the food and the execution of the food and the service, I think that’s something that people sense and that’s valuable,” Long acknowledges. “But I also think we have the best playlist in the southeastern United States.”
That playlist is lovingly, and continually, crafted by Long himself. It features everything from underground club recordings of REM covering Velvet Underground to Isis by Bob Dylan, which mysteriously seems to appear in the shuffle on a daily basis despite the multi-day length of the list.
Is there one song that really captures the essence of Steve’s Downtown? That’s a tough question, but Long eventually has an answer.
“I like it when something like Patti Smith or Television come on,” he says. “Because I imagine that would be what you’d hear in a place like this in New York or somewhere. But ultimately, Tom Thumb Blues. It just sounds like the place feels.”