After 24 years near Rittenhouse Square, Le Bus’ cafe will close Friday afternoon, another victim of the coronavirus that has sapped the Center City lunch trade.

Owner David Braverman, who called the six-month downturn in business “apocalyptic,” said Le Bus’ other operations, such as the King of Prussia wholesale commercial bakery and the Le Bus restaurant in East Falls, would be unaffected by the closing.

Braverman said the store, at 129 S. 18th St., was “in need of a face-lift. We had one or two years left there” had the pandemic never happened. Although he said he considered the closing a loss for the neighborhood, “the [financial] losses were hard to absorb.” The cafe opened in November 1996 a few doors south, now the site of the restaurant a.kitchen, and moved into its current location in July 2006.

One aspect of the closing will be an impending career change for its longtime manager/baker/chief cook, Esther Press McManus, who at 83 brought a colorful background to the shop, rolling up every day on her silver bicycle, which she wedged next to the front window, its front basket bearing baguettes wrapped in paper.

“When they see the bicycle,” McManus said Thursday, “they know that I am here.”

Braverman and McManus’ working relationship started in 1984. McManus — born in Morocco with a far-flung life that has included stops in Israel, France, and Germany and careers including El Al flight attendant and junior-high French teacher — was head chef at the Garden, then a fancy restaurant in a rowhouse at 1617 Spruce St. Braverman was a student in McManus’ Moroccan cooking class at what was then the Restaurant School in West Philadelphia.

Longtime Le Bus Bakery operator Esther Press McManus heads home from work on Thursday, Aug. 27.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Longtime Le Bus Bakery operator Esther Press McManus heads home from work on Thursday, Aug. 27.

Braverman owned Le Bus, a restaurant inside an old school bus parked on Sansom Street on the University of Pennsylvania campus. He was two weeks from opening Le Bus as a sit-down restaurant across the street and needed kitchen help. He convinced McManus to leave Kathleen Mulhern’s kitchen.

McManus went to France to briefly study baking. When she returned, she and Braverman showed up at Le Bec-Fin, then Philadelphia’s premiere French restaurant, with baguettes. Chef-owner Georges Perrier hung up from a call and held the bread. “He didn’t say a word,” Braverman said. “He just kind of felt the crust and he sniffed it and he just said, ’You made this?’” They sold him on the spot, and through the years grew a list of restaurant customers.

McManus — whom everyone calls Esther, pronounced “Ess-TAIR” — developed a savory menu for Le Bus, including soups, lasagna, and chicken pot pies. She also has enjoyed the services of her two cooks, Siaka Traore and Hussein Agour, both of whom have worked with her for decades.

She almost retired after the death of her husband, Charles McManus, in late 2011, and for six months shuttled between a cafe she owned in Israel and her home in Philadelphia. But she returned to Le Bus full-time, and said she would work “until I die.” She showed her email on her iPhone, which already contained job offers from a school and a restaurateur.

“The customers have been amazing,” she said.