White Dog Cafe

JoAnn Greco • Photography by Heidi’s Bridge • July 5, 2018

Photos: White Dog Cafe

Tinkering with a legend always has its challenges, but for locally based Rohe Creative, the opportunity to extend Philadelphia’s already expansive 4,000-square-foot White Dog Cafe was a way “to pinpoint the specific strengths” of the Philly institution, says owner and creative director Kate Rohrer. Opened in 1983 as an early farm-to-table experience, the restaurant’s bohemian vibe and dog-themed décor quickly became a fixture for the thousands of students, doctors, and professors who populate the University City neighborhood. When its founder Judy Wicks sold the business to local restaurateur Marty Grims in 2009, he poured $2 million into de-kitschifying the sprawling space  (and, along the way, opened two more locations in 2010 and 2015 in the city’s suburbs).

For the 1,600-square-foot add-on into an adjacent two-story townhome, Grims sought to honor the feel of the original establishment. “We were inspired by the Victorian-era building, and you see that in the crazy-patterned wallpapers [and] the use of elaborate fringes, trims, and tassels,” notes Rohrer, who worked on the extension while the existing spaces were redesigned by Barbara Balongue in 2016.

Playing off an original solarium window at the back of the new space, Rohrer’s design nods to the ’80s-era in which White Dog opened, arranging cascades of faux foliage hung high on the first floor that transitions into live plants in the bilevel area where a surprisingly tropical patio atmosphere awaits. The main space, at ground level, features the curving, 12-seat Parlor Bar and a dining room dressed in a fresh palette of watercolor washes of blue, coral, and green. “We were going after that feeling of residential authenticity that comes from these Philadelphia rowhouses,” Rohrer points out. “There’s a comfort and warmth that transitions well from day to night.”

The same holds true for the solarium area. Several nooks and a popular suspended ornamental metal hanging chair lend a romantic air in the evening, while during the day, the room is drenched in sunshine and floral patterns. Besides the bold botanical print that spills from upholstery and wallcovering, the space also offers Pullman-style booth seating separated by metal screens, piles of toss pillows, wall paneling suggestive of weatherworn woods, and a playfully graphic encaustic floor tiling that resembles latticework.

“There’s a real balance of masculine and feminine on both levels,” Rohrer says. “The banquette backs upstairs are covered in navy blue leather to offset the pillows and tassels, and downstairs, the florals are interspersed with the heavier scrollwork.” But the heart of the café’s personality is in the canine images that appear everywhere: in the vintage oil paintings covering one wall, on the sculpted heads of the newel posts of the staircase, on the wallpaper for the new bathroom downstairs, and even on labels that sport breed names on the faux card catalogs that line the backbar. “The owners were insistent on an element of whimsy,” says Rohrer, “and that really came forward in the last five percent of the project, when we started adding in dog-related touches.”