The slogan on the T-shirt reads “The Victory. It’s not for everyone.”
That’s an accurate, if abbreviated, description of a quirky new Atwood Avenue coffeehouse with an illustrious Brooklyn (New York) counterpart and background.
New York’s Victory — a closet-sized restaurant that earned notice for both food and drink from publications like The New Yorker, Food & Wine and New York magazine — is closing up shop this month. But New York’s loss is Madison’s gain, with The Victory’s megawatt proprietor, Patrick Downey, transplanted here with his young family, now able to devote all his energy to making the local café flourish.
Even in this larger Madison incarnation, The Victory is not so much a little restaurant as an experience: It’s a big-personality coffee, tea and non-alcoholic beverage bar, with locally prepared pastries and a few lunch items.
The coffee here, not surprisingly, is excellent. Beans come from Anodyne Coffee Roasters out of Milwaukee and there’s a range of flavor profiles as well as brewing options — pour overs, Chemex drip, state-of-the-art Synesso espresso machine. There’s plenty on the extensive beverage menu to choose from for tea drinkers as well. The Victory sources at least two dozen elegant loose leaf teas from SerendipiTea. A chai latte prepared by Downey was rich, complex and mercifully unsweet.
The real breakout beverage, however, is the house-made soda. Downey’s proprietary recipes for luscious simple syrups are created locally by baker and former L’Etoile pastry chef Lee Davenport, who also supplies pastries for The Victory. A ginger soda, made with carbonated water from a countertop dispenser, ice and ginger syrup, was outstanding.
If other sodas (flavors intermittently available include cranberry, lime, raspberry, sour cherry and vanilla) are half as good, they alone merit a special trip. Authentic egg creams — no egg, no cream; made with Fox’s u-bet chocolate-flavored syrup — are on the menu too.
Ordering one of several grilled sandwiches ($6.95) on The Victory’s lunch menu is a bit like an adventure in home cooking, without knowing what’s in the refrigerator. Sandwich choices on an aluminum pie plate menu include options like tomato, fresh mozzarella with pesto; smoked turkey; ham and cheese; or summer sausage with cheddar, spinach, tomato and brown-sugar mustard. The latter, made with Fountain Prairie’s superb sausage and surprisingly decent tomatoes, even in December, is a hot, hearty sandwich that outshines just about any sub in town. Ask about what’s available before you set your heart on any one choice.
On a recent day at The Victory, most of the bread and sandwich fixings were gone by early afternoon. But Downey offered to build half a sandwich (fresh mozz and pesto, grilled with gusto) with what he had left. He didn’t charge for it.
“No, take it. Come back another day for a sandwich. Yeah, yeah … it’s all marketing, but I mean it,” he said with a smile. It was good — a little extra toasty — but it’s hard to criticize a gift sandwich. (Editor’s note: Reviewers for 77 Square do not accept free food, but Downey’s unanticipated generosity towards customers is part of The Victory’s vibe. The reviewer did not identify herself as a reporter.)
Downey’s wife, Ali, contributes daily soups, including a rich mushroom barley with a beef stock ($3.50 for 12 oz.) that drives out the cold on bitter winter days. Her small, ultra-buttery chocolate chip cookies (75 cents) have also earned multiple, well-deserved raves from New York critics at their Brooklyn operation.
The Victory’s house rules seem counterintuitive for the latte-loving crowd, but Downey has a vision in mind. There’s no Wi-Fi, and a stern but amusing graphic on the front counter makes it clear that cell phone use is a faux pas. When a phone does ring in a pocket, purse or backpack, patrons scurry dutifully out the door to take their calls on the street.
“In urban settings, people need to interact with each other. What I’m talking about is community. … It’s just people, getting to know each other,” Downey said.
To that end, he greets customers by name and, by example, encourages everyone to chat — with him and with each other.
At The Victory, when customers aren’t talking to each other, they’re reading. The in-house print collection is eclectic: The New York Times on an old-fashioned newsprint library stick, “American Music” by Annie Leibovitz, the American Heritage Dictionary, as well as “The Mitten” by Jan Brett.
Small children will find a sunny corner with tiny chairs, chalk and plenty of blackboard space for drawing.
Another quirk at The Victory is the issue of payment, draconian in theory, benevolent in practice. No credit cards, no checks — cash only, with no nearby ATM. But Downey and his staff say no one needs to leave hungry because of a flexible “eat now, pay later” policy that has won friends and repeat customers.