by Len Lear
One of the most stunning “art galleries” in Northwest Philadelphia is not an art gallery at all. It is LeBus, a restaurant that opened in February of 2018 at 4201 Ridge Ave. in East Falls, just off the Midvale Avenue exit from Kelly Drive. Prior to LeBus, the property was home to Johnny Manana, a Mexican restaurant once owned by John Anderson, who previously owned Solaris Grill in Chestnut Hill. Johnny Manana closed in November 2016. It had opened in 2002 in a former check cashing agency. Its sidewalk dining, rare for the area, was a big hit in the warm weather months. LeBus can seat about 85 inside, including the bar seats, and has about 13 or 14 tables for outdoor dining.
Upon entering LeBus, one cannot help but notice two things: the profusion of spectacular plants that would make a greenhouse proud and at least 50 paintings on the walls created mostly by 13 artists from Mt. Airy and East Falls. Every style of art seems to be represented. Over the years I have written about other restaurants that feature the works of local artists on the walls, but I have never before seen such variety and ethereal quality. Also, when a piece of art is sold, the restaurant owner normally takes a 50 percent cut of the selling price, but in the case of LeBus the artists receive the full amount that the works sell for.
According to one of the featured artists, Stacia Friedman of Mt. Airy, “I am deeply impressed by David and Isa’s commitment to local artists [referring to owner David Braverman, 69, and his ‘girlfriend-in-chief,’ massage therapist Isa Goldfarb]. By not taking a commission, they are ripping a page out of 1930s Paris when Picasso and Modigliani traded sketches for meals at cafes. I put my watercolors and prints in their restaurant in March, and before the month was over, they handed me a check.”
Julie Zahn, another Mt. Airy artist whose works are showing at LeBus (we sat right under them), said, “LeBus gets lots of traffic, and it’s a good way to keep your work on display locally. Several friends have told me they happened to see my work there and now you! … I started out 30 years ago showing my work in restaurants while going to art school. I sold a piece at LeBus, and no, they do not take a commission, and a friend for whom exhibiting at LeBus was her first experience showing her work sold a piece within the first week of hanging it!”
“We asked artists in the area from the very beginning to hang their art here,” Goldfarb said. “We designed the colors on the walls to be muted so they would be a good background for the art. The artists can negotiate prices as they see fit. We have sold 50 pieces so far, and we have a waiting list of artists to want to come in. We even have a member of our waitstaff who is a collage and multi-media artist.”
Those who have been around the Philadelphia dining scene for a while will know that LeBus in East Falls is not Braverman’s first rodeo. In March, 1978 Braverman, who grew up in Wynnefield and was 28 at the time, paid $400 for a decommissioned school bus and parked it at 34th and Walnut Streets, near the Penn campus in University City, and began selling coffee, pastries, meats and more. As a child, he thought he would eventually have a career as a musician, but he also liked to cook.
“I thought I would run LeBus for a year or two at most, but I turned out to be better at food than at music,” Braverman said. “We were pioneers in the vending truck business in the ‘70s.The food trucks back then usually sold mostly things like hot dogs, but I roasted my own beef, boiled the corned beef, made my own salad dressings and so on. I would make food all night long.”
LeBus was an overnight sensation. As the lines grew, so did the menu. The muffin options became legendary in their variety. Salads and soups made their debut. And, perhaps most importantly, was a small propane oven outfitted at the back of the bus that turned out the first LeBus breads.
A few years later, Braverman enrolled in culinary school for a formal chef’s education. He also travelled throughout the U.S., France and Germany, learning methods from some of the world’s greatest restaurants and bakeries along the way. And in 1984, with the help of his culinary mentor, Esther Press-McManus, he opened his first brick-and-mortar establishment on Sansom Street on the Penn campus. He sold that restaurant 14 years later, but the subsequent owner did not do well and closed within a year. In 1991, he opened another LeBus on Main Street in Manayunk, which he sold in 2002.
“I devoted so much time to the bakery (a much larger bakery in King of Prussia) that I neglected the restaurant,” Braverman said. “That was very emotional. For a year I could not drive down Main Street in Manayunk.”
Braverman, who keeps farmer’s hours (“I get up at 4 a.m.”), has two sons who assisted in the construction phase of the project in East Falls. He has a daughter, Jamie, 22, who tends bar at the restaurant in addition to being the pastry chef. She also designed the menu.
“People come to the bar to be near her,” Braverman said, “because she is so sweet and pretty.”
Braverman admits that things did not exactly go smoothly at the start in East Falls.
“I’m on my fourth general manager,” he said. “My first sous chef was a disaster. He walked out after five months. Fortunately, a line cook stepped up and did a great job. We got off to a bad start, though, and burned a lot of customers early on. This is very challenging, and I have worked hard physically to turn things around. People just want their money’s worth, to see their friends and not have a lot of ingredients they never heard of. This is not a kids’ crowd. It is an all-purpose neighborhood restaurant.”
Regarding the food, there is not a joker in the deck. I would heartily recommend the Farmers Mediterranean salad in particular. It is a meal in itself for one person – maybe even two people – and a super bargain for $15. There is also live music on Saturday nights and sometimes Friday night, with Chestnut Hill favorites like Phyllis Chappel, Ken Ulansey and Rich Rudin.
For more information, visit LeBusEastFalls.com or call 484-255-2100.