Fast and loud — that’s what Chef Derek Davis wanted for his first restaurant back in the 1990s. He sought a venue with customers constantly coming and going, buzzing with energy and excitement.
With his latest restaurant, the chef wanted something quiet and sophisticated, but not stuffy or pretentious. Libertine would be a place people would want to linger, and this June it celebrates its first full year in business.
Davis, who is Jewish, has been a big name among Philadelphia chefs for a while. He opened Sonoma in 1992 in Manayunk (rebranded as Derek’s in 2005), which is widely credited with helping to bring California-style cuisine to the area. Three years later, he made it onto the cover of Philadelphia Magazine.
Unfortunately, as Davis was preoccupied with his other restaurants, an employee embezzled money intended for city taxes. Said employee was eventually convicted, but the restaurant was forced to close when, in 2015, Davis was required to pay the remaining back taxes in a lump sum, which he was unable to do.
Libertine marks Davis’ comeback to a local kitchen. The restaurant is in the heart of the city’s theater district, and Davis has tried to create an atmosphere appealing to that crowd.
“I’ve grown up, my customer base has grown up,” Davis said. “It’s an older, more established clientele. It’s not necessarily millennials or Gen Xers; it’s aging baby boomers. Which, I guess I am one, too.”
Located in Midtown Village on 13th Street, the space was the former home of the Westbury Bar, which operated as a LGBTQ bar for five decades. The name Libertine, in part, pays homage to the building housing the restaurant, which opened in 1925 as the Parker-Spruce Hotel. Davis described the establishment as a “flophouse” and the kind of place you would rent by the hour.
“A libertine is defined as somebody with questionable morals, loose sexually, politically,” Davis said. “And for people who don’t know what the word means, we’re the city of liberty, so it’s kind of a play on the word, innocent to most.”
Libertine’s drink list includes items named after famous historical libertines, such as Catherine the Great, Freddie Mercury, Ernest Hemingway and one of the most popular drinks on the menu, Charlie Sheen.
As for the food, a lot of what’s served is influenced from Davis’ experience working in various Jewish delis at the start of his career. He recalls the days of eating nonkosher grilled pastrami and Swiss sandwiches during lunch breaks as a teen, now reincarnated as Libertine’s House Smoked Short Rib Pastrami Sliders.
Another influence comes from the second deli he ever worked at in his youth. Davis said the place made fresh bagels daily, comparing the process to I Love Lucy’s famous chocolate factory scene. Today, Davis makes six to eight dozen bagels every weekend for the brunch menu.
“Honestly, it was probably my favorite job of all time, because it was just so physical. I was all hot and sweaty and had to keep up with the machine,” Davis said. “You had to work fast, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, and I dug that.”
Another dish that takes the chef down memory lane is a Eastern European chop salad with sweet vinaigrette dressing inspired by something his grandfather would make, calling it the “pop-pop chop-chop.” Davis said the menu is an attempt to break away from the crowd and stand out, while not alienating people.
“It’s not clichéd. You’re not going to get the same thing you get everywhere. At the same time, there’s plenty of things that are accessible. We’re not serving chicken wings; we’re serving duck wings. We’re not serving salmon; we’re serving flounder. We’re not serving avocado toast; we’re serving edamame hummus,” Davis said. “I always thought if you’re going to do something, you’re going to do it well. We have a dynamite [beef] burger.”
While great food and drink are important, building a relationship with customers is a top priority for Davis.
It’s this loyalty that made Scot Ziskind take note.
The president of ZipCo Wine Cellar Services, Ziskind is a lifelong friend of Davis. The two grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, where their fathers had also been boyhood friends. He said Davis is passionate about his work.
“He’s really friendly, like a big teddy bear,” Ziskind said. “And Derek, he’s a chef, he’s a big guy. Never trust a skinny chef. He comes from big stock. He’s a big guy, and when I see him, I don’t get a handshake, I get a hug, and he’s like that with a lot of people. If you’re a regular at his restaurant, you’re getting a hug, you’re not getting a handshake. He’s that kind of guy.”
On June 16, Davis is inviting dads and their families to pay any price for their meals on Father’s Day. All profits from the evening’s sales will be donated to the William Way LGBT Community Center. It’ll be a chance to see what a more mature, refined-with-age Davis can bring to the table.
“Always changing, always evolving, always tweaking things,” Davis said. “You got to grow, you got to progress. Without doing that, what fun is it?”