It feels so good to be back again experiencing the flavors, sights, and sounds of a neighborhood bar.
Crack! A cue ball sends a rack of colorful balls scattering as the two couples playing billiards — laughing, flirting, and a little tipsy — circle the small red pool table with an oblivious joy. I’m sitting right beside them, sipping an Old Fashioned and eating a burger as I soak in the scene at the Goat Rittenhouse. And I can’t help but sense it as a happy old feeling come back to life.
It’s a spot-on drink, with a big ice cube rattling inside a cut crystal tumbler and the sweet burn of boozy Maker’s Mark cut with muddled orange and a kiss of sweet cherry lingering on my lips. It’s a really good burger, too, with a butter-crisped bun that isn’t too big, a secret sauce with sweet relish dripping through crunchy romaine shreds, and juicy, griddle-seared meat draped in molten white Cooper’s Sharp.
There’s nothing particularly fancy about this burger. So why am I loving it so much? Because it’s a fistful of nostalgia perfected, the flavor memories of a vintage Big Mac — “special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions...” — reimagined with care. The taste of a local bar burger as it should be. And especially satisfying for $12 in a tony neighborhood like Rittenhouse Square where the pedigreed patties hover around $20. I chase it with sips of that of Old Fashioned. And mmmm...
They actually checked my vaccine card at the door, so I find myself truly relaxing in a bar for the first time in recent memory. The comfort is even greater when I hear the cheerful Irish brogue of Fergus “Fergie” Carey and then spy his unmistakable shaggy white mane nearby. The feel-good king of Philly publicans is holding court at the square marble bar of his latest endeavor. Everything seems normal again, right?
Not quite. The Goat was already in its 2.0 phase in January 2020 with a substantial reboot and makeover after just a couple months in business before the pandemic silenced its cocktail shakers. And surviving the many months of dining room shutdowns wasn’t easy.
If the pandemic was hard enough on restaurants, its restrictions were brutal on bars, whose very essence depends on close social interactions in public spaces not easily replicated or sustained by sidewalk tables or cocktails to-go (though the revenue boost was helpful). That explains why Carey and his partner, Jim McNamara, coaxed two more partners to join them for this comeback: Jason Evenchik and Patrick Iselin of the Vintage Syndicate (Time, Vintage, Heritage, and the Garage bars). Then later came smiling Jenny Hobbs, an old friend of the partners and longtime beer rep who decided to try her hand at managing the Goat after several months of solo road-tripping across the country following the sudden loss of her mother.
“After all that sad stuff ... and a year without being able to get a hug from a friend, there’s nothing I’d rather do than help my friends open a bar,” said Hobbs, who gave my vaccine card a careful inspection.
Carey, best known for Fergie’s, the iconic self-named Wash West pub that just turned 27 years old, is well aware that building a great bar is about more than just business. “It’s about hospitality,” he says. There’s an intangible character and community that must be cultivated, and Carey recognized that the original version of the Goat, which replaced the long-running Oh! Shea’s and was named after the beloved Billy the goat sculpture in Rittenhouse Square, wasn’t quite right even before the shutdown.
That’s why the gregarious Hobbs, and cheerful bartenders like Benny Breen, are a perfect fit. And the additions of the Evenchik-Iselin team was as much about thoughtful redesign as it was a cash infusion, with $60,000 to the remake the dining room with the restoration of brass accents, the classy marble bar top and crystal tumblers (“elevated beyond me,” Carey says with a chuckle), and a more spacious layout to improve flow around the central square bar, while reducing the number of seats by a third. The addition of the pool table cleverly lends this rambling, multiroom space “the intangible feeling of something going on,” says Evenchik.
The addition of executive chef Mackenzie Hilton, the Syndicate’s corporate culinary director, was also huge as they went to work putting the bar’s “comically small” kitchen to good use. Their goal? Crafting an identity for the Goat as an accessible neighborhood bar with familiar comforts that have been updated just enough.
For Hilton and chef de cuisine, Kevin Miller, that meant a series of good sandwiches like that burger, or her excellent grilled cheese with Cotswold and pepper jack oozing out from butter-crisped sourdough over a crock of creamy tomato soup. A BLT club layered with thick-cut Leidy’s bacon is one of the menu’s biggest hits, as is an ancho-spiced buttermilk-fried chicken thigh sandwich topped with kimchi.
“This place isn’t for fine dining,” says Hilton, who, as an early season winner on Chopped and a longtime chef at Mercato before joining the syndicate, is more than capable of stepping it up.
But this menu was built with both efficiency in mind, as well as a desire to showcase good ingredients in a fashion that could hold the attention of nibblers lingering over drinks. That could mean a rich pink slice of the house country pâté with liver and citrus, or some tasty Portuguese sardines minced into a tangy salad and tucked back into their stylish tin.
There’s a trio of tartares to choose from (beef, beet, and tuna), and the beef version would have been fantastic with a third less mustard, to better taste the quality of the meat. There are also a couple worthy fried bites to stoke the appetite — some meaty oyster mushrooms fried inside a nutty brown beer batter, and a plate of shrimp perfectly crisped inside a dusting of seasoned flour scented with a whiff of shrimp boil spice. It’s such a straightforward but satisfying dish, I’d actually go back for it because it’s such a simple pleasure.
And that is really the elusive secret to the Goat’s appeal: the ability to do elemental things well, and at reasonable prices. This is especially needed in a neighborhood full of special occasion destinations with lofty culinary ambitions, but too few options for a casual midweek meal in laid-back comfort where few seem concerned with primping for the see-and-be-seen crowds at Rouge, Parc, Village Whiskey, or even a.kitchen.
And yet, based on the number of people who are happily splurging $25 for a hot little crock of gooey St. Mark’s, an excellent but milder American take on St. Marcellin from Murray’s Cheese in New York that comes paired with fig jam, crackers and house-spiced nuts, there’s room for more (and better) entrees in that price range than the handful the Goat currently offers. The excellent coulotte steak-frites topped with maître d’ butter for $27 was a very good example. But the cold seared tuna fanned atop overseasoned farro, overcooked bok choy, and an overly intense mustard sauce was less compelling (another mustard problem). The fettuccine was fresh, but also far too fragile to handle the richness of molten burrata and sauteed mushrooms, which, as a whole was unexpectedly bland.
I’m confident Hilton can improve the entrees, too, despite the kitchen’s space constraints. Meanwhile, the limited gelato-centric dessert selection has at least focused on a winner: a sundae that was, in fact, the very first menu item Evenchik requested when brainstorming with Hilton about the Goat’s remake.
“Sundaes make people happy, so do comfortable easy bars,” he said.
After three scoops of Gelarto gelato, a hale of colorful jimmies over Reddi-Wip and a fistful of Hilton’s sweet nuts spiced with cardamom, ginger, and cayenne, I can confirm the glow of happiness at our table beside the billiards game at the Goat. Our spoons scraped bottom and I ate the cherry on top.
The Goat Rittenhouse
The Inquirer is not currently giving bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.
1907 Sansom St., 267-239-0982; thegoatrittenhouse.com
Dinner nightly 4-11 p.m. Lunch, Friday 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
All major cards.
Not wheelchair-accessible. There is a small step to enter the building and the bathroom is not wheelchair-accessible.