A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Downie took a master's degree in Italian from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where he was a Kenyon Scholar and University Fellow. After working in the early 1980s as a translator, interpreter and press officer in Milan, he moved to Paris. His writing reflects an abiding interest in French and Italian culture, politics, food and language.
His articles have appeared in about 50 publications, print and online, including The Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Gastronomica, The Art of Eating, Australian Financial Review, Salon.com, Epicurious.com and Concierge.com. He has acted as Paris correspondent, contributing editor or European editor for a number of publications, including Appellation, Art & Antiques and Departures. His writing has also appeared in anthologies, among them The Collected Traveler volumes on Paris, Southwest France and Central Italy.
In 1997 Downie’s crime novel La tour de l’immonde, about violence and murder in central Paris and its banlieue, was published in Paris.
His first nonfiction book in English, Enchanted Liguria also appeared in 1997; it was translated the following year in Italy under the title La Liguria incantata. His illustrated book on the contemporary cooking of Rome, Cooking the Roman Way, was listed among the top ten cookbooks of 2002 by The Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle. Cooking the Roman Way is full of anecdotes about the names, hidden meanings and origins of Italian foods; useful notes explain the difference between farro and spelt and the existence and uses of the quinto quarto "fifth quarter" of butchered animals.
Downie’s book Paris, Paris (first edition 2005) explores the sites of Paris, from the Ile Saint-Louis to Les Halles and the parks of Montsouris and Buttes Chaumont. Paris, Paris also features insights on Georges Pompidou, François Mitterrand and Coco Chanel. The book was reissued in April 2011 as part of the Armchair Traveler series at Broadway Books (Random House).
European pilgrimage routes are another field of interest for Downie. Together with his wife, photographer Alison Harris, he walked 1,100 kilometers across France following sections of the Way of Saint James; a website documenting this journey is under construction, and Downie has written a book about it titled Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James. The updated 2011 edition of Paris, Paris includes a new chapter (titled "Hit the Road Jacques") on the Way of Saint James in Paris.
Among Downie's food- and wine-related books are three volumes in the Terroir Guides series, published by The Little Bookroom, and dedicated to the food and wine of the Italian Riviera (and Genoa), Rome, and Burgundy. In 2011 another book by Downie about Rome was published: Quiet Corners of Rome; Paris, Paris was also reissued in 2011 and was reprinted six times in the first nine months.
Downie's second crime novel Paris City of Night, a Hitchcock-style thriller involving a putative terrorist plot to destroy parts of Paris, was released in 2009.
Downie is also a tour guide and co-owner of Paris Paris Tours.
- 1995: Un’altra Parigi, nove passeggiate insolite nella Ville Lumière (with Ulderico Munzi)
- 1995: The Irreverent Guide to Amsterdam
- 1997: Enchanted Liguria: A Celebration of the Culture, Lifestyle and Food of the Italian Riviera (Rizzoli International)
- 1997: La tour de l’immonde
- 2002: Cooking the Roman Way: Authentic recipes from the home cooks and trattorias of Rome (HarperCollins). Photography by Alison Harris
- 2005: Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light (Transatlantic Press)
- 2008: "Food Wine The Italian Riviera & Genoa" (The Little Bookroom)
- 2009: "Food Wine Rome" (The Little Bookroom)
- 2009: "Paris City of Night" (MEP, Inc)
- 2010: "Food Wine Burgundy"(The Little Bookroom
- 2011: Quiet Corners of Rome (The Little Bookroom)
- 2011: Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light (Broadway Books)
- 2012: The Other Way: Skeptics Walk the Way of Saint James from Paris to the Pyrenees (Pegasus Books)
- 2013: Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the way of Saint James (Pegasus Books)
- 2016: A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light (St. Martin's Press
- 2017: A Taste of Paris: A History of the Parisian Love Affair with Food (St. Martin's Press)