Back to basics in the restaurant biz with chef Derek Davis at Libertine

Derek Davis poses for a portrait inside Libertine Restaurant, located at 13th and Spruce Streets.

Back in the 1990s, Manayunk was the city’s hot restaurant destination, and Derek Davis was the chef behind some of its more prominent restaurants: Sonoma (later renamed Derek’s), Kansas City Prime, Arroyo Grille, River City Diner/Tootsie’s, and Fish on Main.

But City Council’s five-year moratorium on new restaurants instituted in the late 1990s drove much of the attention into Center City. Although few restaurants closed along Main Street, none opened. Through the 2000s, the street lost its luster.

When Davis closed Derek’s — his first and final restaurant — in 2015, he said, “I literally just spent the first few months just chilling.” In his mid-50s and with his two kids out of college, “I started to look at other opportunities, other businesses, other areas not in the restaurant business.”

Davis, 57, happens to be a restaurant lifer, from his start as a 12-year-old working at a Hoagie City, then at 13th and Market Streets, in an era when there were “maybe nine restaurants” in Center City.

Earlier this summer, he opened Libertine, an American bistro, at 13th and Spruce Streets, next to the new Fairfield Inn & Suites. We chatted recently before dinner.

Tell me about the early days of Sonoma in 1992. What was it like, as a chef and restaurateur?

It was easy because you knew you were going to be busy every night. We averaged, for a while, for quite a few years, 400 people a day, every day of the week. At one point, I was told it was the highest grossing restaurant in the city per square foot. It was the right place at the right time. When I first pitched it [to early investors Dan Neducsin and Allen Newman], I billed it as for graduates of TGI Friday’s, because, at the time, the Friday’s on City Avenue [about 10 minutes away] was the busiest Friday’s in the chain.

When you closed Derek’s, what was your plan?

After looking at all of the things that came my way and running numbers, I realized that, if I was going to make a serious living, I’d have to stick at what I was good at, what I knew. To start over … I didn’t really want to take that time.

I had a few deals on the table when this came up. Originally, I pulled out on it. I didn’t like it because of the size and the size of the kitchen. Then I realized that I was smart enough where I could meet the challenge of the space. I thought the location was unparalleled. I really thought that this corner was just about as good as there was.

From conception, it took two years. While the project was under development and under construction — and that’s a whole ‘nother story, the construction, reconstructing this building — my wife [Robyn] and I have been in the dog-grooming business. I worked there for nine, 10 months, and got that off the ground. That’s going great.

What breed don’t you like to work with?

There’s certain breeds that you can’t make money on — the short hairs. Those short-hair, no-hair dogs, you don’t want them. You want the long hair, froufrou dogs. The smaller, the better. People are really emotionally attached to the groomers. Obviously, love their dogs. You’re laughing.

No, I’m laughing because I’m just imagining you grooming a dog.

I never groomed a dog. I washed a few. The business was really easy for me because it was answering phones, making reservations, running the books, greeting the customers, taking their money, and the marketing.

What did you miss the most in the restaurant business?

I like dealing with the barriers every day, finding out what’s coming in and what we can make. I learned at a very young age. Every Friday night, I went to Horn & Hardart on Cottman Avenue with my grandfather, and, every Friday night, we sat in the same table, and there were the same people and then the same waitresses. I learned then that the most important thing is the consistency, and people don’t necessarily go for the quality, but consistency is the most important. It could be consistently bad, but they know what to expect, and they still go. I would sit there, and my grandfather would have his roll and butter and his coffee. … One time, I’d have tapioca. Another time, I’d have a blueberry pie. I learned that some people like consistency, and some people like different all the time. That’s how I’ve modeled my career. I kind of keep my menus consistent but always offer lots of specials, always different stuff … not only to keep the customer engaged, but also to keep the employees fresh. They want to see new things and learn things and different things. They don’t necessarily want to see the same thing, year in and year out. It gets boring.

Compare the restaurant business then and now.

You’ve always heard that there’s turnover in the restaurant business, and I’ve always contended, right from the beginning, that it was turnover because we did a lousy job at retention and training, training and retention. I don’t think much has changed, but you have to do just a really good job at training people. I was always successful at keeping people around. I didn’t have a lot of turnover for a long, long time, and it’s because I empathized with them. I knew what they want at life, what was important to them. I made it fit for them. I didn’t bust their [humps]. I didn’t say, “You have to come in today,” when I knew that they had to take care of their kid that day.

The only thing that has changed, really, is just there’s a lot more options to spend your money. I think the good thing is we’re seeing a trend back to smaller restaurants that specialize in small things. You’re not seeing a lot of huge menus, so the focus is just doing a good menu and focusing on that, especially in the higher end, too. When you get into the Cheesecake Factories of the world and Founding Farmers? The menu’s huge, and it’s average because the menu is just too big. They’re trying to please everybody. Shrink the menu down, get it right.

What’s Libertine all about?

We’re hoping to be a neighborhood spot. I think, at this point in my life, I’m a little more sophisticated and, obviously, older. Sophisticated is a better word, right? My success has always been that I marketed toward myself. I drive up the street and see what’s going on in the middle of the block, and I see a younger crowd. Will we get some of that? Sure, but I don’t think we’ll be teeming with 30-somethings, and that’s OK. Listen, I don’t want to be sitting in the bar with a bunch of 25-year-olds at 1  in the morning anymore.

We’re a block from the Kimmel Center, so I expect a nice theater crowd eventually. I expect to get something from the hotel. I’m not banking on the hotel at all — that’s just the gravy. I think it’s a really strong residential neighborhood, and I think the neighborhood is looking for a place with a little city sophistication and that’s not catering to kids.

Most important, I don’t feel that I have to serve cliché food. It’s like, everywhere you go, you can get grilled salmon, you can get grilled octopus, fried calamari, avocado toast, even. We’re trying to offer something that you can’t get everywhere else. Not that we’re trying to be totally creative, but just go comfortable. It’s not too fussy. We’re not tweezer chefs.

I think I’ve always thought my job as a chef was to innovate, not imitate. Classic example: In the ’80s, you had blackened redfish, right? Everyone started doing it. Then one day, you saw it at Popeye’s. It was time to move past that.