Ghostburger, the pandemic pop-up that brought Philly-inspired cheesesteaks and mouth-watering smashed burgers, started haunting a permanent location last week in Shaw. Destination Unknown Restaurant Co-Founders Josh and Kelly Phillips discuss the decision to refashion their popular Mexican and mezcal restaurant Espita into the first permanent home for Ghostburger.
District Fray: I’d love to hear about the journey from Espita to Ghostburger.
Josh Phillips: When we first started Ghostburger, it was meant to be a little hidden pop-up, just to keep the restaurant open and not have to lay off any staff during the pandemic. It was pretty much an instant success. We outperformed any of our wildest projections. Throughout the pandemic, we searched for a location for Ghostburger, and we came close a couple of times. Then we realized it was going to take too long to actually open one from scratch, so we made the executive decision to transform the Shaw location to Ghostburger. We’re going to continue to do takeaway and delivery, too.
Kelly Phillips: There are a lot of high-end restaurants in Shaw. So we wanted to have something that was accessible and affordable, but fun at the same time. We’re pretty close to the [Walter E. Washington] Convention Center; the neighborhood is busy, with a mix of tourists and locals. We really wanted something that everybody would love.
How is the space transforming? Espita has all these dark woods and an industrial feel, and Ghostburger’s vibe is this neon pink ghost.
JP: I always call Espita our mezcal cave. If you compare it to our other restaurants — Taqueria Las Gemelas and Destino (both located in La Cosecha at Union Market) — which are bright and airy, then Espita is dark and moody.
KP: Yeah, we decided to go really bold. Like the language and social media for Ghostburger, we are very outgoing and fun and [it] reminds us of Philly [where both Phillips are from]. So we wanted to bring a little bit of that Philly attitude and flair. The design is a bit mod, a little retro. There will be bright pink and magenta. We painted the exterior white with pink polka dots. There’s a black and white hand-painted tiled floor. It doesn’t even look like the same space. We’re not afraid to really go big because taking risks is how we got here. We’re really leaning into that. When you walk into space, you just have to smile. I love people walking by and commenting; it’s cool to see the excitement of the neighborhood. And then a couple of touches from Espita are living on. If you look around the dining room, you’ll find hidden black butterflies all over the dining room.
DF: How is the menu and offerings expanding as you open Ghostburger?
KP: The vegetarian burger is coming back, and we also have an Italian hoagie. We’re creating breakfast options on the weekend: breakfast sandwiches, fluffy pancakes, scrapple, cheesesteak hash. Before we were doing two menus out of one space, and now we can really kind of play around and expand the menu a bit more. We will also have a soft serve machine. We have a canning system in-house to create canned beverages, like a canned mojito. We are carrying over our Mezcal Margarita on tap from Espita; we offer it at all our restaurants. A lot of our mezcal collection is going over to Destino. And we’ll continue our love for Mexican food over at Las Gemelas and Destino; it’s still something we’re really passionate about. But we feel like what we’re doing at the new spots is kind of what we’ve always wanted.
JP: You’d think it’d be emotionally challenging to give up your first restaurant, but Destino particularly fulfills all of the creative outlets that Espita originally gave us.
KP: I will still be spending most of my time at Destino. It’s my love. It’s my favorite restaurant, but Ghostburger is definitely the most fun.
DF: Final question: You two are always looking forward to the next unknown adventure. What’s coming up next?
KP: Well, we really do see this Ghostburger as the first of many locations; we really love the brand. We have a lot of people very interested in opening Ghostburgers. So definitely more of that, but first we need to have the standalone location. We’re very excited to kick it off.
Ghostburger is open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.