David Campli was first allowed to ride his bike into Malvern at age 11. He and buddies from his neighborhood, just over the borough line, would pedal into town, buy candy from one mom-and-pop store and a drink from another, and stay out until dinnertime, recalled Campli, now 58.
“There certainly wasn’t as much hustle and bustle," he said of downtown Malvern in the 1970s. "Now, it’s a destination for restaurants — and that’s awesome.”
Campli, owner of Campli Photography and president of the Malvern Business and Professional Association, is referring to the recent influx of dining options, punctuated last month by the unveiling of Delaware County-based Brick & Brew’s largest and most expensive endeavor yet.
Brick & Brew already had restaurants in Havertown and Media, marketing director Marcus Dent said. When company officials went looking for a third location, they thought about Phoenixville, Doylestown, and Kennett Square, he said, and then came across a nondescript office building on King Street, Malvern’s main drag.
“The business community, the momentum, in Malvern was on a positive trajectory,” Dent said, “and we felt like it was a good time to step into that.”
Over nine months, he said, they tore the building down to the studs and spent $1.5 million crafting it into a 5,000-square-foot restaurant, bar, and deck.
It’s the latest addition to this Chester County borough with working-class roots, a place once known for a Hires root beer plant and condensed milk factory, and its intersection of railroads. Over the last five years, new restaurants and apartments have moved in, bringing fresh energy to the town of 3,000.
The upscale Restaurant Alba, often called one of the suburbs’ best, transitioned from BYO to full-service, adding a wine bar. Christopher’s and the Malvern Buttery moved in on the ground floor of a 190-unit apartment complex, Eastside Flats, which opened in 2013. Anthony’s Pizza & Italian Restaurant, a Malvern mainstay for more than 25 years, expanded.
The new Brick & Brew has especially excited suburbanites, drawing large crowds even on typically sleepy quiet weekends when folks flock to the New Jersey Shore.
Many residents, officials, and business owners say they welcome the change despite concerns about parking, traffic, and home affordability. Others bemoan a loss of small-town charm and say they believe the area has been overdeveloped.
In his three years as borough manager, Christopher Bashore said, he’s seen “substantial growth” with new businesses and homes, a growth he thinks was kick-started by Eastside Flats, which a spokesperson for the complex said is 94 percent occupied.
People are attracted, Bashore said, to the area’s high property values, good public schools, walkable downtown, and SEPTA train station, which provides access to the Main Line and Center City.
“Malvern is a great community,” Bashore said. “People take a lot of pride in living here and being from here.”
Lynne Frederick, 52, grew up near Harrisburg, but she’s been attached to Malvern since she drove through in 1992, looking for apartments the old-fashioned way.
“We were like, ‘This is the greatest little town,'” she said. “It struck me as a Charles Dickens kind of town.”
She’s lived in and around the borough ever since, she said, and now chairs the Malvern Historical Commission. Her beloved “Dickens” town now looks very different, she said.
When Eastside Flats was built in 2012, “no one really wanted it,” she said. But “the businesses wanted it.”
All in all, she said, the redevelopment has been positive.
From his cozy wood-paneled pub, the Flying Pig Saloon, Steve Iacobucci has watched the borough change. A connoisseur of craft beer before it was trendy, Iacobucci said locals fell in love with his place soon after it opened in 1999.
In two decades, he said, “the Pig” hasn’t changed much. Inside, Christmas lights still stay up all year, and patrons continue to donate pig decorations, meant to match the building’s original flying pig-adorned weather vane, the inspiration behind the name.
Outside the pub, however, the town looks much different than it did 20 years ago, Iacobucci said, with fewer antique shops and more restaurants. But he thinks there isn’t much more room for growth given that King Street doesn’t have wall-to-wall storefronts like some other boroughs.
“I don’t think it’s ever going to be like a Wayne or a Phoenixville,” Iacobucci said. “I think we’re reaching a saturation point at this time.”
Christopher Todd, owner of Christopher’s restaurant, said he was drawn to Malvern because it reminded him of “Wayne 20 years ago," around when he opened his original location on North Wayne Avenue.
He’s found success in Malvern, too, even more so since Brick & Brew opened across the street. After Brick & Brew’s borough debut, he said, his restaurant logged its most lucrative three weekends since opening nearly six years ago.
In any town, “the more restaurants you have, the more people come,” he said, noting Christopher’s has served many diners who didn’t want to wait for a table at Brick & Brew.
The new addition has prompted even longtime business owners to up their game, sometimes by doing something as simple as sprucing up their signs, Todd said. “The whole town has been refreshed.”
Rachel Gallegos, 38, a Philadelphia attorney, moved with her young family from Chestnut Hill to Malvern in 2016, attracted by the borough’s walkability and the Great Valley School District.
She’s come to love the diversity of restaurant choices in the borough. She’s eaten at Brick & Brew twice, she said, but also enjoys meeting friends at “the Pig." She likes that juxtaposition of old and new in the downtown strip.
“It doesn’t feel like a pushing out of the old businesses,” she said.
Vicki Sharpless, 61, agreed that the two can coexist.
“In my mind, it’s either grow and change or die,” she said. “I’d rather see it grow and change.”
She understands the nostalgia that many of her fellow lifelong residents feel. She, too, loves to reminiscence about playing with the other kids in town — everyone knew everyone back then — and eating at Mary Wilson’s luncheonette.
But Sharpless said she saw the town lose some of its vibrancy in the 1980s and 1990s. She’s happy to have seen it become lively again. Not only are the restaurants appealing, she added, but so are places like Scoops & Smiles Ice Cream & Water Ice, a “happening place” on warm nights.
The only downsides to the growth, she said, are more traffic and a decrease in affordable housing.
“Unfortunately, my children can’t afford to live in the borough,” she said. “That’s understandable … but that’s also a little sad.”