Like a huge souffle, Main Line's Maia falls

Maia in Villanova sat 450. But it often had one big seating about 8 p.m., proprietors say, a suburban dining ritual.
Maia in Villanova sat 450. But it often had one big seating about 8 p.m., proprietors say, a suburban dining ritual.
Posted: April 22, 2009

When Maia, the astonishing 20,000-square-foot dining-plex, raised its curtain in Villanova a year ago, it seemed the answer to the Main Line prayer: Lord, give us a place to grab fresh-baked pastry, clam pizza, and Belgian beer, and a dinner good enough to blow the socks off a foodie in from New York.

Its debut, publicly at least, won raves. On its best Fridays, Maia was serving 600 meals. By August, Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan gave it three bells, a rare A-minus on his grading scale.

But it was troubled from the start, wounded by outsize ambitions, bickering partners, early-to-bed suburban dining habits, and, at $8 million, a renovation budget better suited for headier days.

So there was little surprise Sunday when, after limping for months, it mercifully turned off the lights and locked the doors.

It was two weeks before its first birthday, and, having cut its hours, shrunk its menu, lost its top chefs (the storied brothers Patrick and Terence Feury), it had played out its string.

The bad economy, of course, didn't help. But it appears that was not the major factor in Maia's demise.

The pleasure dome, maybe the most ambitious dining venture ever mounted in the suburbs - a combination sleek coffee shop, eat-in market, bistro, and fine-dining restaurant promising from-scratch charcuterie, fresh-baked croissants, and scallops still wriggling from the sea - might have been an impossible dream.

At least in a suburb where the rule is to dine by 8 o'clock and to reserve the big-ticket evenings for the bright lights of Center City.

A post-mortem is rarely pleasant. In Maia's case, it is searingly painful.

The Main Liners who'd had such high hopes, even bringing the menus from their favorite Palm Beach haunts for guidance, were left feeling crushed.

Staffers broke into tears recounting the painful unraveling. And at least some of the partners were so mad, they could spit: "I was just over there cleaning up," said Jerry Holtz of Provco, the real estate-investment group and part-owner. "And I found one of those 'You are here' maps, like in a mall. That said it all. This place was way too confusing."

It was indeed a Rube Goldberg project, reconfigured on the fly as an extra floor of space (once a FreshGrocer market) became available, requiring two kitchens, each outfitted with custom, high-end Montague ranges with inserts for the garbage cans and even salt and pepper shakers.

It took an extra year to redesign the expanded space, and the finished decor (along with a 500-year-old burled walnut stump fashioned as a maitre d' stand) finally described as "Pacific Northwest Natural."

Then came the rush: "I don't think we got a chance to grow legs," recalled Melissa Monosoff, the opening sommelier (and now at Savona).

Only half the kitchen staff - penciled in for 40 - was on board on opening night last April.

A last-minute market in addition to the bistro downstairs created an identity crisis and a logjam. "We didn't have menu covers for the first three months," said Monosoff.

But if the physical space was an unruly sprawl, the management structure seemed to invite maximum dysfunction.

Provco's Holtz found fault with nearly every aspect of the operation: The high-end chefs, he complained, weren't conversant with running a first-floor coffee shop, bistro, and prepared-food market. (Terence Feury had been head chef at Striped Bass and the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia and in Washington; his brother Patrick trained at Le Cirque in New York and was splitting his time between Maia and Nectar, his popular Berwyn dining room and bar.)

Two of the three spaces, he said, were underused, the market and coffee shop generating only hundreds of dollars a day. The kitchen equipment was way too precious. The soft costs for design, engineering, and architects were off the charts. The layout was built for inefficiency. Staffing was out of control! "If they could have hired someone to wipe their a-," he said, "they would have."

Needless to say, others see things differently.

One insider found the staffing inadequate: "We had an incredible staff for 1 1/2 restaurants. But we were running two," he said.

It was, for a shining moment, an all-star team: Head baker Jim McAleese, lured back from a gig at Balthazar, the Soho brasserie; sommelier Monosoff, fresh from the Fountain at the Four Seasons, proudly showing off her cold box of 192 beers aimed at bringing in discriminating drinkers from Villanova and Radnor; general manager Al Lucas, a former top manager for the Stephen Starr empire, to which he has returned; and, of course, the Feury boys, all together in a big brick box attached to a Staples off Lancaster Avenue, barely visible to passersby, tucked behind Villanova's post office.

Perhaps the time wasn't ripe, if it ever could have been. "There were a lot of negative forces," said a former manager. "You probably wouldn't build such a big box, such an aggressive project, in this shaky economy. You wouldn't be building a Buddakan in New York right now."

In a report on Maia's maiden voyage in June, I wondered: "Can this temple of something-for-everyone go the distance?"

It was, indeed, unwieldy at a glance. But there were so many reasons to root for it.

In a space three times as large as Striped Bass, where he'd made his bones, Terence Feury was suddenly serving fresh-catch, pristine seafood unheard of in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Even today, former customers sigh when remembering his day-boat scallops from Viking Village on Barnegat Bay, served with Peekytoe crab timbale and a lemon emulsion.

And last night, his brother Patrick - with whom he collaborated on every dish - dated the beginning of the end of Maia to demands from other partners for one of the brothers to get out of the kitchen.

Patrick stayed for a while. But the fine-dining space cut back to three days, and earned a demotion (at the end of 2008) to two bells from LaBan.

Terence exited, taking up top-chef duties at 70-seat Fork in Old City, and bringing along eight of Maia's cooks and a key front-of-the-house staffer.

He had no regrets. At first, he said, "I thought we were doing such great stuff. I thought, it can't not work. I take a lot of pride in what we did; it hadn't been done on such a grand scale."

Maybe it was the suburbs, finally, that did it in - the very place that had prayed so passionately for Maia's success.

You get the 7:30 p.m. rush in Villanova, said Terence Feury, and that's it. But you need people at tables early and late, he said; you need energy in the room.

"Drew Nieporent [the Manhattan restaurateur] used to joke that he was going to open a 400-seat place called 'Dinner at 8.' "

"And that's what we did in a way at Maia," said Feury. "They'd come for one big seating. But you can't survive on one big seating."


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols

Staff writers Craig LaBan and Michael Klein contributed to this report.

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