“It’s awful,” said a neighbor of the Main Line White Dog.
When Marty Grims was looking to open a suburban branch of his renowned White Dog Cafe in University City, he found what appeared to be a perfect location at the western edge of downtown Wayne.ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Not only was the affluent Delaware County suburb the epicenter of a mini restaurant renaissance — where diners didn’t blink at forking over $40 for a prime cut of steak — but compared with his original location on narrow Sansom Street, Grims said, Wayne offered “a plethora of parking.”
That depends on your definition of plethora.
Plagued by two years of delays, the White Dog Cafe was one of the most eagerly awaited restaurants on the Main Line. Since its arrival in early November, patrons have swooned over the farm-fresh menu and showy interior, mimicking a Main Line mansion with dining areas designated as den, garden room, library, and kitchen, clustered around an expansive bar.
But neighboring businesses and residents have described a nightmare of circling SUVs, purloined parking places, and congestion on streets already notoriously clogged — the result of a dearth of spaces during the lunch rush.
“It’s awful,” said Michael Batt, who co-owns Beans Beauty Store & Salon in the same Town Center complex on Lancaster Avenue as the restaurant. “I own four stores in four very busy areas — Manayunk, Doylestown, Center City, and here — and this is the worst parking situation.”
Radnor Township officials say the White Dog acted more like a bad dog by opening with nearly three times as many seats and employees as permitted. They also say that the staff was instructed to park on side streets and that valet-parking attendants put cars in front of homes and slipped them into a municipal lot across the street that requires parking permits. On one day alone, Radnor cops issued 30 tickets for illegal parking in the immediate vicinity of the bistro.
“He obviously deceived us,” said Matthew Baumann, Radnor’s community development director.
The White Dog had been issued an occupancy permit for 63 seats and seven employees, based on parking availability in the complex, he said. But after an anonymous tipster alerted authorities in early December, township officials sneaked in and counted 174 seats and 28 employees.
Grims, who also owns Moshulu in Philadelphia and DuJour in Haverford and operated the former Passerelle in Radnor for 20 years, said he based his occupancy on nighttime parking, when other Town Center businesses close and he has all of the lot’s 158 spaces to himself.
Last week he met with officials and worked out a deal allowing him to operate with 118 seats, he said.
“In retrospect … we didn’t consider the impact of parking during the day,” said the restaurateur, who bought the White Dog enterprise 21/ 2 years ago from Judy Wicks, a longtime icon of liberal city politics and, recently, the trendy farm-to-table food movement.
A few weeks ago, Grims hired the valet service “as an accommodation” to guests and neighboring businesses, but after the ticketing episode, the attendants are parking cars in another municipal lot several blocks away.
Businesses such as Beans say the valets haven’t helped much. Customers still “can’t get in” the lot, said Sherri Batt, Michael’s wife. “We go pretty dead at lunch hour.”
At Peanut Butter & Jane, next to Beans, a customer had to give a valet her car just to get into the complex, said owner Theresa Benincasa. “It’s just not right. I know this is his [Grims’] bread and butter, but I pay rent, too,” she said.
Though the White Dog’s pricey cuisine has won raves and solid weekend bookings — with guests even sharing tables just to get a seat and a local celebrity, Hooters singer Eric Bazilian, spotted there a few weeks ago — the parking debacle has raised suspicion among neighbors.
“We want to be harmonious, but triple the number of seats — that’s a red flag,” said Kathy Wright, who lives around the corner on Lenoir Avenue.
Longtime residents of Wayne — the bustling suburban downtown of chi-chi boutiques and upscale eateries made famous in native David Brooks’ 1990s bestseller Bobos in Paradise — knew something that Grims apparently did not: Parking has always been a headache.
With a half-dozen busy eateries in the small town, restaurant owners say parking is scarce, particularly at lunch when lots are filled and North Wayne Avenue in the town center is choked with traffic. Mike Ellis, who owns the popular Teresa’s Cafe, said he pays nearly $10,000 a year for 20 spaces in a lot across from White Dog — where valets were parking illegally — for his employees.
“We opened in 1997 and there were parking problems then,” he said, calling the town a “little Manayunk.” The only solution is a municipal parking garage, an idea that’s been kicking around for years, “but there’s no money for it,” he said.
Chris Todd, who owns Christopher’s, mused that horsedrawn buggies probably were circling for open spaces on the day the first Pennsylvania Rail Road steam engine chugged into Wayne in the 1880s.
“White Dog,” he said, “just realized what’s going on.”