Ghostburger owners Josh and Kelly Phillips had never been to Dubai before. But last week they touched down in the Persian Gulf city for the first time to open their second burger and cheesesteak joint, which they’re calling Philly Jawn by Ghostburger.
The restaurateurs, who are also behind Mexican restaurants Destino and Taqueria Las Gemelas, were approached about licensing their Shaw concept by TGP International—a London-based hospitality management and franchising company with a global portfolio—shortly after it opened a couple years ago. Josh says TGP had been looking for a burger restaurant to put in a property within Dubai’s Expo City, home to this year’s COP 28 climate conference. “They thought our launch was one of the more fun burger launches they’d seen in a long time,” he says.
The Phillips have spent months in Zoom meetings helping with everything from design to staffing to menu development. But they didn’t actually see the restaurant until its doors were pretty much ready to open. “We said, ‘Can we have a video tour?’ And they said, ‘We really want you to be surprised,'” Kelly says.
The Biden-approved menu of smash burgers, cheesesteaks, and crinkle cut fries is largely the same as it is stateside, but with a few notable changes. To comply with Islamic dietary laws, there is no pork. It also wasn’t possible to ship Sarcone’s rolls from Philadelphia, so the team worked with a local French baker to make custom buns and hoagie rolls. “They’re actually really close, and that was my biggest concern,” Kelly says. Some specials are unique to the Dubai location, like a seared halloumi burger with arugula and garlic mayo. Philly Jawn is also one of the few places in the area with a liquor license, so it is shaking up cocktails and boozy milkshakes.
The Phillips say they’re interested in further expanding the brand, either locally or in the Middle East. “This is the test,” Josh says.
A surprising number of DC restaurants have expanded to the Middle East over the years. Good Stuff Eatery previously had a location in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and is now in Cairo, Egypt. José Andrés’s Spanish tapas spot Jaleo is in Dubai. And Cafe Milano has an outpost in Abu Dhabi.