Top Dog

From Wayne to LBI, Marty Grims is proving he’s a restaurateur to be reckoned with.

Marty Grims inside Philadelphia’s White Dog Café. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)You’d think Marty Grims would be tired of fielding questions about the fate of his latest project, the much-talked-about White Dog Café in Wayne. And while other restaurateurs might lament the diminished credibility of a late opening, he shrugs it off. He’s been there before.

“We could’ve rushed it,” says Grims. “But with everything else that’s on the table, we didn’t feel the need to force it.”

Originally scheduled to debut last summer, the Main Line version of Judy Wicks’ iconic University City eatery has been held up by construction permit issues and should open this month. The suburban outpost was part of a deal between Grims and Wicks, who cashed in her leadership role—and majority holdings—in favor of more altruistic pursuits in early 2009. The burgeoning “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” movement, the explosion of community supported agriculture, and the wealth of farmers’ markets in the area all conspired to convince Grims that bringing the White Dog brand west made good business sense. The ironic part is the location. The new place is on Lancaster Avenue, directly across from Anthropologie, the hipster retail store owned by Urban Outfitters, which was co-founded by Wicks and first husband Richard Haynes.

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As for Grims, you could say he’s the quintessential entrepreneur. A 1979 Episcopal Academy graduate and a product of Cornell University’s esteemed School of Restaurant and Hotel Management, the Berwyn resident is known for his fearlessness and thirst for challenges. He owns the restaurant and event space on the historic Moshulu tall ship at Penn’s Landing, Chew Man Chu and Du Jour Market & Café in Center City, and the original Du Jour location in Haverford. He’s a former co-owner of Passarelle and Bravo Bistro in Radnor, Central Bar & Grill and the Big River Fish (now Tango) in Bryn Mawr, and the now-defunct Basil in Paoli.

In New Jersey, he owns the Inlet in Somers Point, plus Daddy O Restaurant & Hotel and the Plantation on Long Beach Island. Pending projects include another Daddy O in Florida, and a yet-to-be-named Asian restaurant, his second in Philly’s Commerce Square.

“One of the things Marty was looking for was a project that would counter the seasonality issues facing his Shore properties,” says Ron Gorodesky, a consultant on the White Dog project via his Paoli-based Restaurant Advisory Services. “Obviously, they’re jammin’ in the summer, but the off-season is slow.”

Gorodesky had a 20-year history with Wicks, who was “incredibly concerned” about keeping the restaurant’s integrity and maintaining the social contract she’d built the business on—buying products from local farmers, serving only humanely raised meat and sustainably caught seafood, and recycling and composting as much waste as possible. “Grims had a genuine respect for the White Dog brand,” he says.

But while Grims embraced Wicks’ social and environmental integrity, he left the political agenda at the bargaining table. “Judy’s a true philanthropist, and I support her mission,” says Grims. “But I’m a hospitality guy. I’m more interested in quality food and service. We want to take that and make it better.”

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The White Dog’s permit problems in Wayne have been a mixed blessing for Grims. The slowdown on the Main Line actually gave him more time to re-evaluate another twin: the Symphony House Du Jour—younger Center City sister to the upscale Haverford Square café and catering company he opened in 1999.

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Unlike its sib, this Du Jour was having a hard time establishing itself as an everyday destination. “No matter how well we’re doing, it’s always about getting better,” says Grims. “Du Jour wasn’t working here. We had to fix it.”

Enter Chew Man Chu, a contemporary, moderately priced, family-style Asian fusion restaurant. Laid-back but still lively, Chew offers spirits and delivery, along with an open wok kitchen and a chef’s tasting counter.

In keeping with the Pan-Asian theme, a higher-end, Jeffrey Beers-designed eatery is scheduled to open this August in Commerce Square, also home to the newest Du Jour location.

In the course of a 90-minute interview, Marty Grims downs four iced teas. “I could drink two cups of coffee after dinner and have no problem falling asleep,” he offers in response to a raised eyebrow.

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We’ve decided to meet over lunch at Chew Man Chu, and though he’s preoccupied with his Blackberry most of the time, the only call he answers is from his wife, Laurie. “She needs me to grab one of the kids,” says Grims, praising her skills in juggling three children, two of them twins.

The conversation drifts from one project to another, but it always comes back to “the team.” His company, Big Red Management, boasts an annual payroll of around $9 million—and that’s not taking into account his last three projects.

“I didn’t build my business by promoting myself,” he says. “I’m just the figurehead; there are lots of people standing behind me. I like being the guy behind the curtain.”

Megan Eberz Vanesko is a longtime Big Red partner, along with her husband, Allan, Moshulu’s executive chef. “Marty recognizes the value in the partnership model—and in asking his players to put a little skin in the game,” she says. “We’ve all been brought in at different points and at different levels, but any financial commitment makes your employees care about what’s going on.”

Grims aims to produce something fresh with each new venture. That said, his vision for the new White Dog centers on delivering what’s expected—great food, great service—in an unexpected way.

Working with his longtime collaborator, Radnor-based designer Barbara Balongue, Grims came up with a plan he hopes will transform the commercial dining experience into something more residential—like enjoying a superior meal at a home.

“We want to make patrons happy and give them something to get excited about,” says Grims. “We want them to be proud to show us off to their out-of-town friends.”

Together, Grims and Balongue chose stylish, eclectic furnishings, accent pieces, fabrics and finishes to embellish each room of the 5,000-square-foot restaurant—much of it similar to what you’d find across the street at Anthropologie. “We want the White Dog to be the restaurant Main Liners wish they had 20 years ago,” says Grims.

And though the day of reckoning should come later this month, Grims isn’t sweating it. “The first thing you need to learn in this business is not to believe your own bulls–t,” he says. “Every restaurant has its own personality. Where one might hit it out of the park on day one, another might not be so sure-footed. I’m confident in the integrity of this concept, and that success or failure is in our control.”

Or is it? Grims will know soon enough.

“The bottom line always tells the story,” he says.

Our Best of the Main Line & Western Suburbs Party is July 25!