Victor Allen's Coffees has been around since 1979 and, with Steep and Brew, Victor's was a pioneer of local coffeehouses.
Before Steep and Brew and Victor Allen's, there wasn't a lot of good coffee in Madison. Victor's branch outlets have fluctuated somewhat over the years -- it doesn't even have an outpost on State Street any more -- but the firm still brews one of the best, if not the best, cups in town.
Coffee roasting is a matter of taste, of course, but certain roasters impart their beans with a certain aggressive, smarmy aftertaste that stops short of bitterness, but it is harsh. I don't taste that at Victor's. There, I get a nice dependable jolt even from the medium brew cup of the day - I don't need to order an espresso to get the goods.
Victor's doesn't have a cafe on any of my main traveled paths, though. Victor's has become a heavily west side institution, with only one branch on the east side (on Annamark Drive, near East Towne and the Interstate). I have friends in the Monroe Street neighborhood, though, and the Victor's at Knickerbocker Place has been a convenient stop a few times over the last couple of months.
The first best reason to go to a coffeehouse is the coffee, of course, and Victor's cup is a worthy one.
Victor's baked goods are from the Wild Grains Bakery, which used to have a storefront just down the way from this Victor's, but now supplies the bakery from the Mineral Point Road Victor Allen's.
Biscotti in numerous flavors, scones, cookies and muffins are mainstays, but there are also bagels and loaves of bread. The muffins are not overly large but they are sweet and moist and almost like cake. The scones are also dessertish, quite moist for scones and without the crumb of a traditional scone -- so you might keep that in mind if you are a scone purist. I'd say they're a little more like muffins, although denser and not as sweet.
Cookies and other baked goods are bundled and sold half-price as day old. I tried a day-old peanut butter cookie and it was fine for dunking, though it's probably safe to say that the staff was wise to be moving it along out of the frontlist bakery.
The Monroe Street site is quiet enough in the evenings to get together after a movie for coffee and dessert and conversation; mornings, it's a bustling meeting place, pseudo-office for many and a spot to read the New York Times, but still quiet enough to have a heart-to-heart with a friend.
Yes, you can get lunch at Victor's too -- at least at the Knickerbocker location. The grilled panini are premade "Mercato Grille" sandwiches and will set you back, as my Dad says, $6.50. There's also a breakfast panini ($3.75). The soups of the day are available in four different sizes, starting with the cup size ($3.50). A nice touch is the vegan soup offering -- not available every day, but Victor's does try to have one vegetarian or vegan soup on the menu every day. Soup is also available in a bread bowl. (Other locations vary -- some have pastries only; some have soup; some have both soup and sandwiches.)
Oddly, the soups of the day are also available for takeout as day-old at half-price. The concept of day-old soup specials is a new one for me. I'd give it a try. After all, I've eaten soup way older than that out of my own refrigerator.