Sweet-potato pastrami hash with braised sour cabbage, two sunny-side-up eggs and mustard cream//All photos by Steve Legato.
As first impressions go, West Chester’s Split Rail Tavern and its staff have it locked up. Bartenders are friendly and knowledgeable, succeeding in delivering textbook service with welcoming smiles.
A well-trained, courteous staff was just one highlight of my visit to this nine-month-old watering hole. The bar offers 22 rotating craft drafts, including a selection of sour beers and hard ciders, on-tap wines, and signature cocktails. “Just please don’t call us a gastropub,” says Split Rail co-owner Paul McCreavy.
His partner, chef Doug Huntley, chimes in: “Gastropub sounds too serious. A tavern feels more like home.”
Chef de cuisine Justin Hoke finishing off an entrée.
It’s easy to see why the two prefer the cozier connotation. On a bitter winter day, I scaled a massive bowl of Belgian mussels steeped in a hearty wheat-ale, garlic and bay-leaf broth. The empty shells smiled up at me as I happily sopped up the thyme-laden liquid with hunks of warm, seeded Le Bus country bread.
Returning a few weeks later with my wife for dinner on a packed Friday night, I quickly noticed that Split Rail Tavern’s demographics are all over the place, from graying parents with their kids and grand-kids to the after-work cocktail crowd to the area’s thriving collegiate set.
We saw order after order of the juicy, 100-percent organic, grass-fed beef Dutch Meadow Farms hamburgers and the heaping Italian roast pork sandwiches. The latter are done “DiNic’s style,” as the chef proclaims—an homage to Reading Terminal Market’s famous long-hots-studded sandwich.
A winter sangria cocktail.
We began with freshly made garlic hummus amid a slick of toasted sesame seeds and red wine sumac, all of it slathered elegantly atop hot-and-chewy pita points. Another appetizer, buttery oven-baked gnocchi, dissolved tastily on the tongue.
The 10-ounce sliced New York strip was pink and perfectly cooked to tenderness, its accompanying creamed spinach brightened nicely with grated lemon zest. The free-range, brick-pressed chicken with celery root puree was a subtle, deconstructed riff on coq au vin, its deep-roasted burgundy chicken stock an aromatic jus reduction.
Split Rail is very much the tavern McCreavy and Huntley want it to be—only with a more sophisticated finish. Each of Split Rail’s two levels emanate a red-bricked, urban vibe, with both spaces showcasing an ink-stained cherry-wood bar and hemlock flooring re-milled from Lancaster County barns. Rows of Edison bulb fixtures and TVs adorn the space.
The night we were there, a DJ was spinning classic-rock standards that were a pleasant accompaniment to the meal. However, the decibel level was raucous to the point of distraction during prime-time hours. At least the music didn’t dampen our tastebuds.
Burgundy Brick Chicken
THE SKINNY: West Chester is quickly embracing this creative gastropub—er, tavern. It’s a hip, welcoming place staffed by an eager young team serving elevated cuisine and carefully crafted libations. Go early on weekends if you want to converse. Stay later to rock out.
SPLIT RAIL TAVERN
15 N. Walnut St., West Chester, (484) 999-8805.
Cuisine: Classic fare—wings, flatbreads, burgers, steaks—on an elevated level.
Cost: Appetizers $8, entrées $32.
Atmosphere: Laid-back with energized overtones.
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Sunday. Bar serves until 2 a.m. Monday-Saturday and 12 a.m. Sunday.
Extras: “Sundays with Sinatra” brunch; drag-queen karaoke on Tuesday; open mic on Wednesday; burlesque night on Thursday; DJ spinning vinyl Thursday–Saturday.