There just happened to be three open seats at the bar, so we sat down, ordered a round of beers and took in the scene.
The space is gorgeous, with a long slate bar and tile on the floors and some walls. The dark wood backbar frames row upon row of whiskey bottles - most of which I'd never heard of. Black leather booths surround circular marble-topped tables beneath large windows painted with the restaurant's logo. The whole room is bathed in light. Past the bar toward the kitchen and bathroom are two marble drink rails, one wider for seated eating and the other narrow.
The draft beer list is short but strong, with a half-dozen selections of American craft brews. I chose the Sixpoint Righteous Rye, Mal ordered the Lagunitas Pils and Lou had the Founders Dirty Bastard. I'm a sucker for a good rye beer and the Sixpoint was righteous indeed (in fact, I think our next brew session will be a rye pale ale); it was malty with a dry, almost astringent quality from the rye. No whiskey or cocktails for us; Mal was on lunch break from work and Lou and I needed to pace ourselves for a long afternoon.
Beers in hand, we moved onto food. Mal and I split the famously expensive ($24) Whiskey King: 10 ounces of farm-raised Angus beef on a milk stout potato roll with applewood smoked bacon, blue cheese, bourbon glazed cipollini onions, and a healthy slice of seared foie gras. Lou ordered the black bean veggie burger, which came on a sesame roll topped with guacamole and pickled cabbage. We also ordered the duck fat fries with Sly Fox cheddar sauce and the soft pretzels.
Soft pretzels (there are 5 to an order but I was slow on the draw with my camera)
The pretzels came out first - piping hot, studded with salt and resting in a bowl of the best mustard ever. $3 buys five of these little fluffy sticks. I could've eaten these all day.
The skin-on fries arrived in a paper cone with the cheese sauce on the side. They were much bigger than I expected -- not too many places serve steak fries in Philadelphia, and these were even larger than your typical steak fry. Flecked with herbs and salt, they were perfectly cooked and incredibly tasty -- and despite being cooked in duck fat, not at all greasy or heavy. The Garces restaurants probably go through a lot of ducks, and I'm glad their rendered fat is being put to good use. The cheese sauce was great -- it would be amazing on a cheesesteak.
But on to the main course. This was what we came for: the most decadent burger in the city (with a price to match). Did it live up to the hype?
I am the Whiskey King, and I can do anything...
I think the answer is a qualified "yes." $24 for a burger in Philadelphia seems absurd on its face. But the Whiskey King's ingredients are all top-notch, especially the beef, and foie gras isn't cheap. It's also huge - 10 ounces plus all those toppings makes for a big burger. If you split it with a friend, the price and the sandwich are much more manageable. For me, half a Whiskey King is just the right size. My biggest gripe is that none of the burgers come with fries; you have to buy them separately ($5 and up).
Mal and I agreed that the burger was delicious. It was perfectly cooked to order, incredibly juicy and intensely beefy. With so many high-grade toppings it was inevitable that a few would get lost in the shuffle, and I thought the onions and bacon were overshadowed by the cheese and foie gras. Speaking of which, the slice of foie was larger than I expected but didn't overwhelm the beef.
I didn't try Lou's veggie burger, but as the picture shows, it sure is pretty. Lou said it was tasty, too.
The staff were smooth, polished and attentive, as one would expect for a José Garces establishment. Our bartender said there were the usual opening day glitches, but aside from a malfunctioning beer engine, none were apparent to us.
I won't be making a habit of ordering the Whiskey King, but I do look forward to trying a few more items on the menu (Kentucky fried quail and housemade pickled vegetables in particular) and a few of cocktails next time.