Forty-five years ago this month, David Braverman was an unlikely pioneer when he set up a kitchen inside a decommissioned school bus on Sansom Street on the University of Pennsylvania campus.
David’s father, Cy, had owned the famed “Dirty Drug” luncheonette at Penn in the ’60s and later had a school bus/vending truck at Temple called the Good-Food bus. Taking his idea a step farther, David opened Lebus (the name borrowed in part from Renault’s “Le Car”), which in 1984 yielded a sit-down restaurant across the street (now closed), a restaurant in Manayunk (from 1991 to 2003, now Winnie’s Manayunk), and since 1993 a commercial bakery, with a retail shop at 18th and Sansom Streets in Center City (which remain).
The name, by the way, has been both “Lebus” and “Le Bus” over the years.
Braverman, now 68, simply could not stay away from the restaurant business after 15 years. Last year, he leased the space that formerly housed Johnny Manana’s at Ridge and Midvale Avenues, gutted it, and last month opened the cheery Lebus East Falls.
Which is where we sat for a chat.
First, how about some background?
I was a musician. I was a good choral conductor and a not very good piano player. I specialized in Israeli and the music of Jewish composers. I started a young-adult choir in Philadelphia after I left NYU, and it was successful. I did that for four years. I don’t know if you really want to hear about this, but I was a Scientologist for many years prior to that. I am no longer one, but I was one for 40 years.
But you’re Jewish?
I never changed religions in my own mind. Scientology for me was kind of a self-help thing, like if you did TM or something similar. I never considered that I changed religions. Because Scientology addresses spiritual issues, it calls itself a religion. Later on, through a series of events, my participation in Scientology became public. At the time, there was a big anticult movement in Philadelphia, particularly within the Jewish community, and the choir became stigmatized. As a result, I left the choir and my career in music, as well.
Which gets us to your first food business.
My dad was in the food business, and he actually had opened up a vending truck at Temple. I always liked to cook growing up. I was good at it. So I opened up the truck just to fill some time and make some money, hoping to eventually find my way back in to music. But, as it turned out, I was considerably better at food than at music. We kind of revolutionized food trucks, because when I first started back in the ’70s, most were rather ordinary — steaks, hoagies, that sort of thing. There was pizza, but bad pizza.
What led you to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant back then?
It seemed so exciting to me. At the time, I frequented Steve Poses’ Commissary and was inspired by it. It was exciting and different. Then I met Esther Press-McManus. She was head chef at the Garden [then at 1617 Spruce St.] and became affiliated with the Restaurant School, where I got a chef’s degree. … I went up to her just on instinct at the end of a lecture she gave on Moroccan cooking. I told her I was opening a restaurant in two weeks and needed help, and I asked her, “Can you bake?”
And she said, “I worked with many bakers in Nice, and in Paris, and I’m a wonderful baker.” I arranged for her to come that following Saturday and told her what bakery items I needed to train my staff. And she said, “OK, you can pay me $500 for the day,” which, even in the ’80s, was cheap. She said to have everyone there at 6 a.m. and she would be there. So I got all my staff, and she came down the steps to the kitchen carrying two huge shopping bags full of doughs and other preparations she had made in order to be prepared to help us. That was about 10 days before our opening. And she never left, to this day. She was there all day and all night for that entire time and on into the future. And now she’s eightysomething and she still works at 18th Street.
How did you get into commercial baking?
When we started baking [for the first restaurant], Esther spent about a month or two in Paris, and she ate at some place in Chartres, where she liked the baguette. She asked the restaurant chef there where did it come from, and he directed her to a small bakeshop. She went in there and asked if she could stay for a night or two and help. When she came back, she came running back to Lebus with a bunch of baguettes, all wrapped in about a hundred layers of Saran Wrap, and she said, “We are going to make this baguette.” And of course it was problematic because the flours are different and the water’s different, and the bakeshop’s different, and the oven’s different — everything’s different. But we made a wonderful baguette based on what she had learned.
We ran to Georges Perrier with it. And I remember we were standing outside his office on the fifth floor. I remember he had two people in there with him and he was screaming his head off on the phone. Finally, we went in there and showed him the baguette that we had just baked. Of course, it was at its peak. He didn’t say a word. He just kind of felt the crust and he sniffed it and he just said, “You made this?”
“You start tomorrow.”
Also at that time, Jean-Marie Lacroix invited us to bake for the Four Seasons. Those two were a passport to the city.
Why did you get out of the restaurant business in the first place?
I first opened Lebus wholesale bakery in a small space in Manayunk in 1993. In 2000, we moved to a very large space in King of Prussia. Because my strength is as a baker and not as a businessman, I didn’t understand the added expense of such a large facility. Financial troubled ensued, and I decided to sell the Manayunk restaurant in order to devote myself full time to the bakery and pull it out of the financial weeds. It was a stressful time. But I never stopped missing the restaurant.
Was there any sort of a lightbulb moment that said, “I have to open another restaurant”?
For the 16 years since I sold [the Manayunk restaurant], I missed having a restaurant. To me, feeding people good food is very gratifying. I kept telling my [three] kids, “I’m going to do one more.” But then after a while, I started playing music again. And I was enjoying it and getting better at it. And I began to wonder whether another restaurant would actually happen.
How has the restaurant business changed in the last 40 years?
For many years, during the heyday of the restaurant revolution in Philadelphia, the trend was for chefs to produce exotic, overly fussy food, food designed to impress. But I believe now people have come back to craving simple, familiar food, well prepared, fresh, comforting, accessible. That is what thrills them, and that is what I want to produce. That is the goal of my restaurant. I love inviting people over. I love to feed people.
If you put something in front of somebody that’s bubbly and hot and beautiful and it smells wonderful and looks wonderful, I believe it creates a physical change in one’s body even before you take a bite. Your soul comes alive. And that’s the kind of a food that when eaten really nourishes. You know, food is important. It really matters. Everything about it matters. And that’s what I want to do.