More often than not, a restaurant closure comes as the result of some combination of factors like poor sales, health violations, or an irreparably bad reputation, or as a reaction to stiff competition sprouting up nearby. Sure, the recent reincarnation of Pizza Man not a block away from VIA Downer (2625 N. Downer Ave.) probably wasn’t exactly a boon for business. Still, even with another pizza purveyor vying for Downer Avenue diners, the four-year-old pizzeria didn’t appear to be in fiscal distress. In fact, VIA seemed to be lauded by customers and critics alike—which made the restaurant’s blunt June 20 Facebook announcement that it would be closing June 30 a fairly upsetting and altogether surprising one.
Sadly, the establishment was done in as a response to contraction of its ownership group, which forced the remaining two owners (who also own and operate Transfer Pizzeria) to lop off the East Side arm of its pizza stronghold. With all due respect to incumbent eatery, BelAir Cantina, we’re going to miss VIA Downer immensely. So with heavy hearts and empty stomachs, we paid one last visit to the closing restaurant on its final night of operation.
The service: We arrived about a quarter to six in effort to avoid the oncoming rain and with hopes of evading some of the rush of like-minded diners we figured might turn out for the sad affair. Our promptness was rewarded with one of the last interior two-tops before a line formed by the doorway. The place was packed and bustling with a kind of post-mourning happiness of those who’ve come to terms with the fact their final bites were nigh. Eventually, an exhausted-looking yet upbeat server named Kyle came by and apologized for his tardiness (which we hadn’t even registered), explaining “it’s been crazy in here,” but saying the staff “wanted to go out with a bang.”
As far as we’re concerned, they did. (And that’s not referring to the momentary power outage brought on by lightning midway through our meal.) Our order arrived unexpectedly fast. We didn’t want to be the umpteenth ass-hat to inquire what Kyle was going to do next, but we’d overheard him tell a table he was going on vacation. He was kind, courteous, and remained professional on an evening so many others could’ve contributed to a bad parting experience with bitter attitudes. If he hasn’t been hired elsewhere, BelAir should keep him in the building.
Milwaukee Record’s food: As tempting as it was to finally get around to trying one of VIA’s pasta dishes or other high-end entrees, we couldn’t pass up one last chance to pig out on our favorite pizzas: SMO (sausage, mushroom, onion) and Thai Chicken. The SMO was baked to perfection, down to the light wood fire char of the hearty homemade crust. The red sauce was abundant and, as always, bursting with tangy, satisfyingly salty flavor. Unexpectedly, the onion hunks were a tad undercooked (a likely byproduct of a red-hot oven churning out more pizzas than ever at a faster pace than ever before), but the fragrant crunch was actually a solid attribute. We snagged a couple slices of Thai Chicken, and also enjoyed the ample onion representation, which was a nice balance to the chicken chunks and spicy curry and peanut sauce combo.
The verdict: Fortunately, Transfer offers all the same menu items VIA Downer did (and more). Yet a restaurant is so much more than just its food. It’s the look and feel of the interior, the staff, a place to enjoy a meal and conversation either close to home or outside one’s usual local haunts. For 49 months, VIA Downer was a culinary cornerstone on an underutilized Milwaukee causeway. Judging by the numerous Yelp lamentations, the restaurant will be missed. Though we had just 10 days to cram in a final feast, we’re glad we had a chance to come by on a rain-soaked night, knowing full well it would be our last time, instead of learning we’d missed a chance to properly say goodbye.