Lunch at Bar Avalon ends with a curious ritual: Nathaniel Muñoz, the restaurant’s garrulous sommelier and general manager, hands you a baseball card. It’s the glossy, ’90s-era Topps variety, with a squiggle of black Sharpie across the front. (“People get more excited about the cards when they’re signed,” said Muñoz, who autographs them himself. He is forthcoming about the fact that no actual baseball players have signed any of the cards he hands out.)
Why pass out shiny Tony Gwynn rookie cards to customers who may or may not care about baseball? Because he and chef Joshua Guarneri are baseball fanatics and they want to put their personal stamp on the restaurant, Muñoz told me recently. Also, it’s fun.
Bar Avalon is the first California restaurant from Atlanta-based Revelator Coffee, a coffeehouse chain with more than 20 locations, most of them in the Southeast. For its debut Los Angeles project, the company tapped Muñoz and Guarneri, who wrote the food and drink menu, manage the restaurant’s day-to-day operations and source all the complimentary baseball cards from their personal collections.
The cafe opened without much fanfare in August at Echo Park’s shiny Mohawk Collective strip mall, concealed amid a cluster of chain restaurants with much brighter, taller signs. It’s tucked in a corner of the parking lot, mere steps from the car-choked juncture of Sunset Boulevard and Alvarado Street, hiding in plain sight. The modest-size dining room has what designers call “good bones”: faded brick walls, lofty ceilings and exposed wooden trusses that look more homey than industrial. The raw edges are softened by the fuzzy vibrato of the blues music playing in the background and the smooth tan leather banquettes overlooking a long bar. On the patio, splays of herbs dangle out of pots, the crisp shoots ready to be snipped for dinner service.
There’s a fine all-day coffee menu, but Bar Avalon is a neighborhood bistro at heart. Muñoz, who owns the tiny EVE Bottle Shop wine store adjacent to the restaurant, is clearly more interested in grapes than coffee beans. His wine list includes only bottles from the Americas, with an emphasis on smaller California producers. The 4-ounce pours are on the smaller side but the prices are low (nearly half the list is available for less than $10 a glass), a format meant to encourage sampling.
I’ve watched small groups of people spend long afternoons at the bar, sustaining themselves on small bowls of the restaurant’s excellent malted yuca chips and $5 glasses of Central Valley pinot noir.
It would be a mistake not to come expressly for dinner, though.
Guarneri, who cooked at the Hearth & Hound before it closed in January 2019, is a solemn figure in the restaurant’s fluorescent-lit kitchen, where he quietly turns out small plates heavy on French technique, vegetables and sharp flavors. He is partial to anchovies, pickled vegetables and stinging jolts of chile pepper, sometimes deploying all three in one dish.
Meaty blue prawns roil with the blunt, scarlet heat of piri piri chile sauce. Gently roasted cauliflower is innervated by Calabrian chiles and chopped anchovies. Braised lamb smolders in the hot-sweet fire of ras el hanout, a North African spice blend.
You will find an admirable roast chicken crowned with long, thin strips of fried parsnips, and a sumptuous pork chop whose richness is offset by a bright relish of minced nopales and pickled green tomatoes.
Everything goes well with Guarneri’s glorious Caesar salad, a tall, peppery stack of romaine pummeled with citrus, smothered in just-shaved Parmesan and tossed with salty, crunchy, anchovy-flavored croutons.
The chef does wonderful things with staples: Beans melt against tangy sheep’s milk yogurt, the richness underscored with bittersweet fenugreek. Lightly roasted potatoes are cradled in tender cabbage and cloudy drifts of labneh.
There are subtler dishes, such as the house rillette, a smooth, fatty, herb-scented pork jam that tastes wonderful slathered across a thick, charred slab of sourdough (the restaurant uses Clark Street Bread). Caponata is an excellent, lightly pungent fried eggplant salad muddled with sweet tomatoes, then smeared on crisp seeded bread. Roasted winter squash is endearingly creamy and sweet, complemented with mint and a crisp, buttery scattering of crushed hazelnuts.
The beef tongue Reuben is a spectacle of velvet-soft beef, sauerkraut and a glossy melted cheese. Alas, it is only available at lunch. You will want to leave space for dessert, a version of the Indian carrot and cardamom pudding called halwa that’s improbably rich yet also ethereal and not too sweet.
At dinner service, Muñoz passes out a different card at the end of the meal, this one a fill-in-the-blank postcard with space to tell a friend about your meal. Muñoz will stamp it and mail it for you later. The hospitality is unrelenting at Bar Avalon, but what else would you expect from a restaurant with free autographed baseball cards?
Location: 2112 Sunset Blvd., Suite K, Los Angeles, (213) 908-5352, baravalon.com
Details: Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Lot and street parking. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices: Appetizers $6-$14, shareable plates $12-$16, entrees $18-$29
Recommended dishes: Rillette, all-day Caesar salad, pork chop, roasted chicken, carrot halwa