March 13, 2015
Down the Street: 1993 – 2015
Stratford restaurant owner and hostess ‘bar none’ Susan Dunfield, is hanging up her high heels – for now. After 22 years in business, she is ending her chapter at Down the Street Bar & Restaurant to explore new adventures.
At age 20 Dunfield began her restaurant career at McDonalds Restaurants in Stratford, first as marketing and community relations manager, and then as operations manager. Marriage and motherhood forced a time-out, and led to a diversion into hairstyling and wig making. But Susan’s love of food saw her enrolling in the Stratford Chefs School. After attending a ‘Knives & Forks’ symposium in 1989, headed by chefs Jamie Kennedy and Michael Stadtlander, she was inspired to open a restaurant based on locally sourced and organic produce. In the spring of 1993 the building at 30 Ontario Street (formerly Arnie’s) came up for sale. With the encouragement of friend Billy Munnelly she made an offer, and ‘Down the Street Bar & Cafe’ was launched in August. Susan never looked back.
With the help of staff, and best friends Jeff Leney and Larry McCabe, and later on Steve Walters, Down the Street quickly became a popular venue. It was open seven days a week and showcased produce from Soiled Reputation and other local farmers. Susan brought in craft beers, was an early supporter of then up-and-coming Ontario wineries, and hosted many charity auctions and fundraisers. The walls of Down the Street featured the work of local artists, including Scott McKowen’s beautifully rendered Stratford and Broadway theatre posters.
Susan threw the best parties in town – any night of the week – and her Mardi Gras and New Year’s Eve were always the talk of the town. Live jazz happened on Thursday nights, and if you wanted to schmooze with locals, and Stratford’s stage celebs, they were all at her bar.
“Susan Dunfield has somehow figured out how to run a bar and restaurant that pleases tourists, theatre people and locals...all at once. No mean feat. Sort of the Stratford version of Rick’s from Casablanca.” P. & M. Knowles, The Sunday Sun
Susan didn’t just manage her restaurant, she rewrote the book on hospitality, innovation and service. She invested in service and wine training (hiring Kato Wake and Billy’s Best Bottles) and saw the restaurant experience as a holistic integration of service and food – always with the customer’s experience in mind. With her attention to detail, love of design, lighting and music, infectious laugh, and generous spirit, she created a special place that pulled together old-world soulfulness, a dose of quirkiness, and a slice of cutting edge. It was at night that Down the Street took hold, and anyone who ‘hung-out’ into the wee hours, will tell you that it was transformative. Down the Street was serious about food, wine and hospitality, but as Munnelly said “most of all, Susan was seriously into fun”.
Susan was a hands-on operator and maintained happy relationships with her employees. “Laughter, hard work, incredible staff and nurturing friendships have been a most important part of Down the Street. Chef Lee Avigdor has been with me since the day we opened. Every day was like being on the set of SCTV or SNL. Non stop laughs and non stop kitchen creativity, from the whole team... that’s what keeps us rockin’.”
Her father turned 90 this year and she plans to spend more time with all of her loving family. Last summer, leaving the restaurant in the capable hands of her skilled team, including daughter Abby, and right-hand man Tommy Kelly, Susan had the privilege of having her first “summer” vacation in B.C.
It gave her a taste for adventure. Susan plans to stay in hospitality - how could she not! Who knows, she may deliver a picnic lunch to your next whitewater raft excursion, or your glass of wine in Prince Edward County.
Whatever her next step, it is sure to include laughter and her unique sense of style. All who have been fortunate to revel in “Stratford’s hippest late night spot” wish her well. Long live the memories. (Now, if only those walls could talk!)
The new team taking over the operation of Down the Street will be accepting reservations for May. The name and phone number will remain the same.
Larry McCabe, Steve Walters, Susan Dunfield, Jeff Leney - Down the Street 1993.