But the pandemic-era ghost kitchen proved to be so popular for smash burgers, Philly-style sandwiches, and to-go mezcal cocktails, Ghostburger is now here to stay. On Friday, September 2, Ghostburger permanently opens in the 122-seat space that Espita called home for the past seven years. The Oaxacan-style cantina served its last taco in mid-August to make way for a vibrant Ghostburger makeover with a Philly diner vibe. Hours are Monday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (1250 9th Street NW).
Chefs Robert Aikens and Ben Tenner revive cult pop-up orders like its “Ghostburger” (American cheese, red onions, homemade pickles, “spooky sauce”) and “A Real Cheesesteak” (shaved ribeye, caramelized onions, homemade whiz) on a Sarcone’s roll trucked down from Philly. New additions include “A Better Italian Hoagie” packed with four different Italian deli meats, provolone, and veggies. It’s a sandwich Ghostburger staff would often make for themselves but never appeared on the menu until now.
“It’s hard to find a hoagie in this city that’s actually proper – the right bread, the right meats, the right condiments,” co-founder Josh Phillips tells Eater.
Ghostburger blew past pandemic expectations with hundreds of cheesesteaks sold each week, prompting the team to look for a permanent pad for the pop-up last winter. They originally considered Union Market near sister restaurant Taqueria Las Gemelas, and even relocated the Ghostburger pop-up there for a few months while the owners eyed the neighborhood for a lease. But as it turns out, Ghostburger’s destined neighborhood digs were right under their nose the whole time.
While Espita was known for its edgy, dim Day of the Dead look, Ghostburger’s new hot pink aesthetic filled with cartoonish ghosts and polka-dotted decor is in-your-face playful.
“Ghostburger is bright and colorful. It’s fun and loud,” says co-founder Kelly Phillips. “We wanted to really take a risk and not be afraid to go all out ... there will be fun details, things that are unexpected.”
Ghostburger 2.0 also opens with a new hot sausage and pepper sandwich and barbecue burger with smoked gouda. The restaurant will also debut weekend brunch with breakfast sandwiches, steak and eggs, and scrapple — a nod to the co-founders’ Philadelphia upbringing.
“Growing up in Philly, on the weekends you always had scrapple with your eggs,” says Kelly.
Crinkle fries also get the Philly treatment, blanketed with shaved ribeye (or hot sausage), onions, and whiz. Staying true to the restaurant’s takeout roots, the walk-up service style will be casual, or what Josh likens to an “old-school counter service sandwich shop.” Diners can order on their phones at tables, too.
Aikens, a former executive chef for Stephen Starr in Philly and NYC, went on a mission long ago to perfect the cheeseburger. His gastropub burger at Starr’s The Dandelion was crowned the best in Philly in 2013. Aikens continues to work with famous butcher Pat LaFrieda to build beef blends at Ghostburger.
Cocktails starting at $7 come on tap and in Ghostburger-branded cans. Longtime beverage director James Simpson sends out highballs like a “Ghost Claw” gin-and-grapefruit hard seltzer, mojito, and Americano spritz reminiscent of hard root beer. Espita’s beloved mezcal margarita “Mayahuel” lives on at Ghostburger. La Hamburguesa also nods to its origins, topped with queso Oaxaca, Espita’s salsa macha, and smoked tomatillo relish.
The Phillips say this is just the beginning of what could potentially be a global brand, noting they’ve received interest in franchising Ghostburger internationally. Those ambitious plans are on hold for now, however, while they focus on solidifying the first as a neighborhood fixture.
“It’s really nice to be that place that you can go to twice a week,” says Josh.
A “burger upgrades” section includes fried chicken and bright beet-and-quinoa patties and add-ons like applewood smoked bacon and avocado.
—Tierney Plumb contributed to this report