Back in the day, when Derek Davis was the king of Manayunk, he’d occasionally drive through Center City and find himself at the stop light at 13th and Spruce. Just to his north was the seedy old Parker-Spruce Hotel, in all its unseemly, hourly rate, red-light district glory. “And I was like … I’m running the light. I’m not staying here.”
Little did Davis know that one day he would stay, and that the corner would be the launching pad for his latest comeback at Libertine. And what of the Parker-Spruce, which was billed as an elegant “bachelor” building at its opening in 1924, and which was anchored in its more dilapidated end days by the dark-windowed Westbury bar? A fire in 2014 closed the whole building. After a long renovation, it was replaced this year by a squeaky clean, albeit somewhat generic new Fairfield Inn by Marriott. The posh pink-spotted banquettes of the bright new restaurant there with cafe window walls is where Davis' “Secret Chicken 2.0” finally came home to roost.
This signature chicken was a longtime menu staple at Derek’s, the Manayunk restaurant (formerly known as Sonoma) that Davis closed after nearly a quarter-century in 2015. It’s a rumple-skinned dark hunk of roasted-on-the-bone breast meat with a vaguely sweet Asian savor that comes perched atop homey smashed fingerling potatoes and peas sloshing in jus. Whatever that secret is, Davis isn’t telling, though he teases: “I may be willing to divulge it as a holiday gift to your readers.”
Meanwhile, those readers who live in currently hot city neighborhoods like Fishtown, East Passyunk, Market East, or Graduate Hospital are probably asking multiple questions: 1) Who is Derek Davis? 2) What red-light district?, and 3) How do you get to Manayunk, again?
Cozy as it is and as coyly mysterious as it would like to be, this poultry blast from Manayunk past won’t be stealing much thunder from the real chicken stars that currently rule Center City’s poultry dreams (think of the agrodolce beauty at Res Ipsa, or the multiday wonder of Vernick’s signature roaster). But it’s definitely tasty enough to be a solid winner for a pretheater plate of comfort food optimism at a once-forlorn address.
And so the comeback story for Davis and this corner’s cheerful cocktail bar makeover should be viewed as a plus for the neighborhood, too. All-you-can-eat $29 steak-frites Wednesdays? One of the best new burgers in town? Some witty cocktails and outgoing service? The crowds aren’t here quite yet, perhaps still unfamiliar with the corner’s renaissance. But I was pleasantly surprised as we nibbled from snacks of deep-fried chicken skins drizzled in spicy honey, fresh pastas, soulful lamb meatballs, and nearly an entire menu of real food under $25 a plate. Wash it down with a glass of Mer Soleil or a spice-dappled “Charlie Sheen” (the tequila-pineapple drink shimmers with chili oil in lieu of Sheen’s usual tiger’s blood), and things are off to a promising start. Or reset, as the story goes here.
If broader shifts in city life can be viewed through culinary careers, Davis’ four-decade-plus arc is an instructive lesson on local dining history and a reminder of how neighborhood restaurant fortunes can dramatically rise or fall. Davis cooked with Aliza Green at pioneering Apropos in the 1980s and then at Capriccio Cafe in the Warwick in 1990 when Center City was still a sleepy 'burg with “like 90 restaurants. … You could shoot a cannon down Walnut Street and not hit anyone.”
The opening of his Cal-Italian grill Sonoma in 1992 sparked the beginning of the rise of Manayunk, where Davis went on to open several more restaurants with developer-partner Dan Neducsin, including trendy Kansas City Prime, Arroyo Grille (which became Carmella’s), River City Diner, and Fish on Main. But Manayunk’s suburban-driven momentum, and Davis’ restaurant success, began to stall just as Center City and its surrounding wards took off. By the time Derek’s closed in 2015, the dining map downtown and beyond had become thoroughly energized and transformed, from a revived East Passyunk to 13th Street, whose disappearing legacy as the Gayborhood has been increasingly supplanted by the mainstream gentrification of the entertainment district renamed by its developer as “Midtown Village.”
Against the current landscape of rising culinary sophistication, the once-trend-setting Davis — among the first to cook with a wood-burning oven, and also to serve true Wagyu beef — has settled into a retro role, with straightforward plates that hover toward familiar flavors with modestly stylish touches rather than any true razzle-dazzle: “All these places put 100 ingredients on a plate with tweezers and you don’t remember what you’ve had when you’re done,” he says. “Just get it to me hot and let it taste like food.”
In more than a few cases here, that means a nostalgia trip. A crock of lamb meatballs in a slow-cooked gravy tinted with orange zest and dried fruits is a nod to his grandmother’s 1960s sweet-and-sour specialty, updated a bit with dabs of lemony goat yogurt. A dusky streak of sage-walnut pesto adds a fall grace note to a silky squash soup he’s been cooking since Apropos. The house-cured and smoked pastrami sliders on swirly little marbled rye squares are his homage to the Jewish deli in the Roosevelt Mall where he worked as a teen. They’re good, but I would have loved them even more with a few tweaks to the smoky house-cured meat, which, oddly, lacked salt.
A couple of fresh pastas are among the real highlights, including pappardelle ribbons that harbor tender chunks of slow-cooked pork shank between their folds, the sauce thickened by vegetables pureed from the braise. Some snappy spaghetti tangles with huge lumps of sweet crab along with oven-dried tomatoes and Calabrian chilies in a dish that is far lighter, and perhaps less profound, than typical South Philly crab gravy. But it’s nonetheless flavorful and satisfying when tossed together in the simple sauce of pasta water and oil. A dish of ricotta dumplings could have been a stunner, but the dumplings were overcooked and dry. I’m still trying to figure out where Davis conjured up fresh favas in late November.
Those dumplings belied a kitchen that’s prone to letting some details get in the way of more convincing success. The raw oysters with sweet lychee sorbet would have been fantastic had the little mollusks not been crushed (and half-frozen) by the snowball-size scoops of fruity ice. The fried Thai chicken buns could have benefited from a more vivid Thai punch.
Meanwhile, our steak-frites, a fair value at $23, would have been even better if the meat had not rested in the kitchen too long on a slow Tuesday night. The tender steak was an ideally rosy mid-rare hue but no longer especially juicy. In the heat and bustle of the restaurant’s all-you-can-eat steak-frites special on Wednesdays, I suspect, the sirloins should be flying. And the “Parisian” sauce that accompanies it, a mustardy brew of tarragon and wine, elevated every bite. For steak snobs like Davis (“I’m a steak snob,” he says) there’s almost always a prime-grade steak option on special.
For the most part, though, Libertine is a restaurant for more casual meals than a steak splurge. The service led by veteran general manager Tricia Miller is warm and personable. And there’s a worthy drink list that goes beyond bar manager Tara Ulissi’s creative cocktails, including 16 better-than-average wines by the glass, though the wine-on-draft system was malfunctioning on my second visit, pouring two whites that were almost warm and cooked. Try the local Karamoor Meritage red, which will surprise you.
At $10 a pour, it’s the perfect choice to accompany the hefty Parker Burger that should become one of Libertine’s biggest draws, a 10-ounce master patty of chuck and dry-aged sirloin that sat perfectly in its brioche bun between crisply fried onions, aged cheddar, tangy oven-dried tomatoes and just enough truffled mayo to open that umami door wide. It’s $18, but worth it. There’s a pricier lobster burger variation that is Davis’ overture to the lobster roll crowd, the meat of a one-pound crustacean bound up in a patty-shaped scallop mousse. It’s a neat concept, but not as flavorful as its beefy brother.
Seafood lovers should opt instead for the grilled scallops over couscous studded with rock shrimp, or the simple whole trout that was roasted beside a rustic medley of cauliflower, carrots, and bacon splashed in a juicy grapefruit hazelnut citronette.
The desserts were a mixed bag of fun ideas and spotty execution, like the house marshmallow over-roasted to a crunchy lid atop a cast-iron s’mores crock filled with disappointingly dry brownie. Tone back the saffron in the ice cream to a more subtle shade, and I would have loved the cardamom waffle with candied rose petals. The real hit here is the fresh funnel cake flecked with anise seeds and served hot over strawberry sauce with fresh-spun vanilla gelato. It’s an indulgence that Davis, who worked at a carnival cotton candy stand when he was 14, once swore he’d never cook — until he did, and smiled: “My best seller!”