REVIEW WRITTEN BY LEN LEAR
For 21st Century Media
After attending the Art Institute of Philadelphia and the Culinary Institute of America, Greg Smith, 33, worked for some of Philadelphia’s most acclaimed, perfectionist chefs — Georges Perrier, Jean-Marie Lacroix and Chris Scarduzio, — so you know he has been through fire without an asbestos suit.
He took over the property in the Villanova Shopping Center at 789 E. Lancaster Ave. in Villanova, previously occupied by Maia and Mixx, in May of 2013, and has since transformed it.
An extensive renovation has produced a stunning, modernistic chic interior with high ceilings, whitewashed exposed brick walls, subway tiles on the floor, industrial track lighting, angled mirrors on the walls, reclaimed spruce wood tables and chairs made from recycled Coke bottles, comfortable booths, exposed duct work and dim lighting, the sum of which has a New York-ish feel. It seats just over 100.
Greg, who has more moves in the kitchen than a U-Haul truck, and his sister, Dana Smith Farrell, who oversees the front of the house, have definitely created something not quite like anything else on the Main Line. Farrell started in the restaurant business on the Main Line with her former husband, Tom Farrell, in 1995 with The Classic Diner in Malvern, which is still going strong, even though neither Dana nor Tom had any previous restaurant experience.
When the couple divorced, Dana sold her share of The Classic Diner to Tom and two years later opened Harvest Seasonal Grill and Wine Bar in Glen Mills with business partner Dave Magrogan, owner of the regional chain of Kildare’s Irish pubs. Dana is still a partner in the Glen Mills property, but her full attention has been focused on building the Avenue Kitchen brand. “I wanted a casual, uncomplicated feeling,” said Dana about the Villanova restaurant that is probably closer to upscale than casual.
So far almost every day at Avenue Kitchen has been rinsed in good fortune.
“We are doing well,” said Greg. “On weekends we have been averaging between 200 and 400 ‘covers’ a night, and the bar has been filling up nicely. After all, a lot of new restaurants close after a few months. And we are planning to add a party room within a few weeks that will hold another 50 to 60 people. We have had occasional private parties, but we have to close down the restaurant, and that’s a hard thing to do.
“I always wanted to be a chef when I was growing up. I watched a lot of chefs on TV. It is fun. It is something different every day. We hope to have this place for a long, long time and to branch out into different concepts, but we are not recreating the wheel. The future is bright.”
On the menu is an eclectic mix of soups from $5 to $8, sandwiches from $12 to $18, appetizers from $8 to $16, side dishes such as french fries, mashed potatoes, broccoli rabe from $5 to $8; salads from $7 to $13, pizzas from $9 to $15, entrees from $19 to $30 and desserts about $9.
We tried quite a few dishes and our favorites were the cheese board ($15), especially the earthy, muscular Echo Mountain Blue (blend of cow and goat’s milk) and the semi-soft, acidic, nut-infused Appalachian; the lobster mac and cheese ($15) with its sensual, crunchy crust; and the tuna tartare ($15) with its amazing sea salt lavash.
There is an extensive list of bottled beers from $4 to $9, pricey cocktails from $10 to $14 and more than 40 wines by the bottle, all but two of which are available by the glass from $9 to $21. Their Sangria with pomegranate, vanilla and red wine ($11) is one of the best we have had this year. The wines by the glass, while not inexpensive, offer a superb selection from around the world. The Folie a Deux Chardonnay (they also make a wonderful Merlot) and Montoya Chardonnay ($13 and $12, respectively) are not cheap, but both are spectacularly rich in flavor and aftertaste.
I would be negligent if I did not mention our server, Dave Ward, whose personality, sense of humor and efficiency definitely enhanced our experience.
The restaurant cannot be seen from the road because it so far back from the traffic. Coming from the Philadelphia direction, the shopping center is several hundred yards past the Villanova University campus/church on the right side.
For more information or reservations, call (610) 525-3950 or visit www.avekitchen.com.