by Len Lear

Those people who were living in Chestnut Hill at the time will undoubtedly recall the incendiary controversy that exploded when two restaurateurs with a stellar track record tried to open Napoleon Cafe, a 50- to 60-seat charmer, at 10 W.  Gravers Lane, where a post office previously resided and where Little Tree House now stands. The neighborhood clash in 1996, which would make some other classic Chestnut Hill neighbor-against-neighbor zoning disputes seem like kindergarten tea parties, included name-calling, screaming and alleged physical threats and gay slurs, among other outrages.

(above) Dino Kelly-Cataldi (left) and Michael Kelly-Cataldi at HOME with Napoleon peering over them as a reminder of Dino’s atrocious experience with the ill-fated Napoleon Café in Chestnut Hill.

It all started when Daniel Charest, a native of Quebec, and Dino Cataldi, a native of Port Richmond, planned to open the cafe on Gravers Lane. The couple had opened the first Napoleon Cafe in 1989 in working-class Port Richmond. Despite its untrendy location, the cafe and its sublime pastries were soon prompting practically reverential articles in area publications and bringing in customers from all over the Delaware Valley. However, a horrific tire fire in March of 1996 on I-95 made it almost impossible for customers to get into the cafe.

That’s when Daniel and Dino decided to move their operation to Chestnut Hill. The property at 10 W. Gravers Lane already had the appropriate zoning as well as a big parking lot right across the street. Furthermore, in August of 1996 the CHCA’s executive committee voted, 6-0, in favor of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s granting a liquor license to the small new restaurant, which was going to have an English garden next to the restaurant.

(For those who may wonder why this history is being rehashed, it’s because Dino Cataldi {now Dino Kelly-Cataldi}, 55, and his life partner, Michael Kelly-Cataldi, 49, who live in Wyndmoor, surfaced last November when they opened Kelly-Cataldi HOME at 280 N. Keswick Ave. in the Keswick Village section of Glenside. The new boutique {see article below} sells the finest in stately home furnishings, artwork and antiques.)

Cataldi and Charest made certain concessions to the neighbors, such as reducing the number of outdoor seats from 42 to 30, and while most nearby residents had no objection to the plans for Napoleon Cafe, a small number of very hostile residents made it clear that they were in no mood for compromise.

When CHCA executive committee members indicated their approval for the liquor license at a meeting on Aug. 13, they were verbally assailed by “bullies” with obscenities, called “Judas” and had paper balls thrown at them. Some clearly disturbed board members left Town Hall by the back fire escape. According to Kelly-Cataldi, one resident allegedly yelled, referring to Daniel Charest, “I’ll stick it (the liquor license) so far up his ass, it’ll come out his mouth!” Charest later filed a private criminal complaint with the District Attorney’s Office, claiming that he had been threatened.

The protesters insisted they were only against the additional traffic, parking and noise, but many residents who supported Charest and Cataldi were convinced that the real unspoken reason was anti-gay bias. “That was definitely the underlying reason,” insisted Kelly-Cataldi in a recent interview. “Also, Richard Snowden backed us, and that infuriated them.”

At the time of the controversy, then-executive director Ray Maas, of the Chestnut Hill Business Association, said, “You had on-site operators and a unique product offering an upscale presentation, and here we are turning down the very things we want.”

Despite the support of the CHCA and most residents, Charest and Cataldi pulled the plug. “The funny thing is that we were asked to come to Chestnut Hill by the business association,” said Cataldi. “We tried to respond to every roadblock, but to no avail. We had a petition signed by more than 200 neighbors and a letter of approval from State Sen. John Taylor. We met a lot of really good people in Chestnut Hill but some really ugly people. We had the zoning to put a McDonald’s in there if we wanted to, but we wanted a classy place that the neighborhood would embrace.

“I finally thought, ‘Do I really want to be stuck with these crazy people? Who knows what they will do to the cars of our customers?’ We had already spent $70,000 for architecture plans and legal fees over eight months, and it was obvious that they (the opponents) would keep us tied up with many more legal fees. We could not keep going … We lost everything. It took me 10 years to dig out of debt. In December of last year I made my last payment to the IRS.”

After the debacle in Chestnut Hill, Charest and Cataldi opened Napoleon at 15th and Locust Streets, a much bigger and more upscale restaurant than the one planned for Chestnut Hill. The restaurant was getting rave reviews and doing excellent business for several months until the city came in and tore up the street for months right next to the restaurant. There was so much dust, dirt and noise from the street being dug up and so many construction barriers, would-be customers had to run a gauntlet to get into the restaurant, which the snake-bitten owners eventually had to close.

Both Charest and Cataldi are now out of the restaurant business. Charest sells high-end antiques in Adamstown, and Kelly-Cataldi, along with his life partner, Michael Kelly-Cataldi, operate Kelly-Cataldi ReDesign, LLC of Springfield, Montgomery County, which consults on interior decorating, in addition to Kelly-Cataldi HOME in Glenside.

(Interestingly, while a few neighbors reacted to the proposed small, charming eatery as if it were a crack house, not one peep was heard last December when Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant opened their gigantic 250-seat operation, five times larger than the proposed Napoleon Cafe, which not only has a liquor license but has huge vats on the premises pumping out an endless supply of fresh beer. Where have the protesters gone — to Mississippi? They could have had fun causing delays and legal expenses  for Iron Hill, although Iron Hill is a chain with deep pockets, unlike Napoleon Cafe, and would have easily been able to keep fighting until they won.)