In his transition from web designer to culinary player, self-professed workaholic John Brandt-Lee has cultivated a loyal following in West Chester with Bar Avalon, the (almost) 20-year-old restaurant he owns with David Helfrick. A devoted customer base and the popularity of Brandt-Lee’s social media presence have combined to make him a noted hospitality ambassador in his efforts to weather the pandemic in a positive and charitable way. “I kept seeing the local restaurant industry having to pivot on a daily basis, and there was so much negative energy on social media,” he says. “I was honestly looking for a way to turn that energy around.”
An advocate of under-the-radar charitable causes, the restaurateur went so far as to orchestrate a series of pay-what-you-want pick-up dinners. West Chester diners lined up to take advantage of the great food, and Chester County Food Bank benefitted from the proceeds. For Brant-Lee, the outpouring of community support was life changing. He’s since started the Give, Get, Love Foundation to benefit other local charities and nonprofits.
In other news, Brandt-Lee’s Avalon Bistro & Bar has taken over the former Marbles location next to the Bryn Mawr Film Institute—a spot that’s been vacant since 2015. The new expansion of the Avalon brand actually happened pre-pandemic, though it did have a rocky start. “The location is more of a destination, as opposed to a walk-in experience,” says Brandt-Lee, explaining its temporary closure.
Once restrictions began to ease this past spring, Brandt-Lee and girlfriend Jen Shafer redid the bar and redecorated the interior of the Bryn Mawr location to more closely align with the vibe of the original West Chester spot. They replaced the existing marble bar with a more aesthetically pleasing wood top, adding 20 contemporary, cushy white leather swivel stools to complete the look. The pub-height seating opposite the bar is also quite comfortable.
The front of the building is fitted with wall-length accordion windows, allowing for plenty of natural light. The bar’s sculptured overhead lighting and modern brass lamps evoke a sense of history—and the painted tin ceiling is classic. Upstairs is reserved for small special events like premium champagne tastings and such.
Self-taught in the kitchen, Brandt-Lee has thrived on a menu that keeps dishes simple with limited ingredients. He’s also adept at stirring up savory sauces to complement his Italian-inspired repertoire. On our visit, we enjoyed a well-executed lamb bolognese, sautéed mussels, Scottish salmon, and the signature Judie Foodie Pasta Special (named after local influencer and retired volunteer Judy Carrino) of shredded beef short ribs, mushrooms, caramelized onions and pappardelle.
Shareable happy-hour snacks include fried cauliflower, crab Louie lettuce wraps, and roasted stuffed hots with salumi, Provolone and balsamic. Behind the bar, popular shakes and stirs include the Boulevardier (Bulleit bourbon, Antica vermouth, Campari liqueur, orange and bitters), the Avalon Margarita (silver tequila, Cobier liqueur, blood orange, lime and a salted rim) and the Smoked Manhattan (Cynar Italian bitter, Antica, George Dickel rye whiskey and cherry hickory smoke). During warmer months, the alley area is a charming option for alfresco dining.
AVALON BISTRO & BAR 818 W. Lancaster Ave., Bryn Mawr, (610) 520-9700, avalonrestaurant.net
ATMOSPHERE: Chic enough for the Main Line crowd (and beyond).
HOURS: 4–9 p.m. Wednesday–Saturday, 10:30 a.m.–7 p.m. Sunday.
ATTIRE: Smart casual.
EXTRAS: Happy hour snacks and brunch boards.