by Len Lear
After three years of providing New York-quality cabaret singers and musicians as well as fine dining, Dino’s Backstage in Glenside closed its doors for good on Sunday, June 23.
The odds were always against this extremely ambitious, very expensive-to-build project in a suburban location, where not enough people are going to spend big bucks on haute cuisine and live entertainment. In addition, the nearby Keswick Theater with its big-name entertainment was pretty tough competition.
In a statement on their website, owners Michael Richard Kelly-Cataldi, 56, and Dino Kelly-Cataldi, 62, residents of Wyndmoor, declared: “We are extremely proud of what we accomplished in these three years and could not be more thankful to those who have believed in us, whether they came to us as previous customers of Kelly-Cataldi HOME (a home furnishings boutique in Glenside) or as brand new guests of Dino’s Backstage … For the last three years it has been our privilege to be the place where people made memories and celebrated their special occasions.”
The couple were married in Massachusetts in 2004 and again in Glenside in 2014 when gay marriage became legal all over the U.S. Surprisingly, they announced during their June 23 swan song that their marriage was over, although they are still friends and business partners. In fact, at the closing party Michael and Dino both were accompanied by their new companions.
This was by no means Dino’s first ambitious show in or near Chestnut Hill to bring down the curtain. Some residents who were living in Chestnut Hill at the time will undoubtedly recall the incendiary controversy that exploded when Dino and a partner with a stellar track record, Daniel Charest, tried to open Napoleon Cafe, a 50- to 60-seat charmer, at 10 W. Gravers Ln., where a post office previously resided and which is now vacant. (The most recent tenant, Nest Chestnut Hill, closed in June 2018 after three years of providing local children with a place to both play and learn.)
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.
It all started when Charest, a native of Quebec, and Dino, 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. In March 1996, however, a horrific tire fire 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 Ln. 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.
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 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, 1996, 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 an obscene reference about Charest, who 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 an interview. “Also, Richard Snowden backed us, and that infuriated them.”
And when the Iron Hill Brewery with its more than 200 seats opened later about 100 yards away in December, 2011, there were no complaints about alleged “additional traffic, parking and noise.”
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.”
As for the future, Dino writes that, “We are indeed considering our options. We’re looking at Center City and talking to new potential partners. We love this place [in Glenside] more than you can imagine, and we will do everything we can to keep glamour alive. Stay tuned!”
For more details, visit DinosBackstage.com or call 215-884-2000.