Earlier this year, a group of law enforcement officers polished off the last of their fries and called over Sketch Burger owner Phyllis Farquhar to make an important inquiry.
Did she have any idea, they wanted to know, where a specific drawing might be hanging, one that featured a dragon boat? Farquhar scanned the crayon-covered walls of her tiny Fishtown grill, but her eyes did no better a job at finding it than those of the trained agents. Then she had a realization of where it might be. She pulled out a looseleaf binder overflowing with her favorite doodles and flipped open to a random page. A colorful representation of a dragon boat stared back.
“Thank you!” came fast and furious from all corners of the booth, as cheers alternated with barely-checked tears. Farquhar pulled the paper from its plastic holder and deposited in one of the officers’ grateful hands. The group departed, quest satisfied.
“Turns out it was drawn by a colleague who recently died,” Farquhar explains. “It was one of the only memories they had of him.”
Sketches line nearly every available space of the 7½-year-old restaurant, and they’re posted with one singular goal: To make people smile.
“I’m in the making-people-happy business,” Farquhar says, repeating a favorite refrain.
Her burgers help accomplish that — they’re the kind of large, eight-ounce patties that drip juice and beg for a messy, unabashed bite — and so do her fries, hand-cut daily. Thick hand-spun milkshakes do their part, and then there’s the ever-changing specials list, which garners morning calls from regulars looking to decide if they’ll be changing things up for that day’s lunch.
What really sets Sketch apart from other burger joints is, well, the sketches.
A jar of crayons and pens and pad of paper has graced every table since day one of the Girard Avenue spot, which Farquhar launched in 2008. She says the crafty supplies are there to keep customers from getting antsy, since everything is cooked to order and will most certainly take longer than today’s fast-food culture norm.
But the art that flows from hungry patrons’ fingers seems more than just a time-kill, like it was hiding below the surface, waiting for its chance.
“Occupy my stomach…I am the 99 percent (stuffed)” reads a politically attuned composition, surely quite timely at the moment it was drawn.
“We talking about practice??” exclaims a headband-wearing burger in another, the Sixers logo in the corner leaving no doubt about the source of the quote.
Current events show up often on the wall. “These burgers are too big to fail!” pontificates a blue-suited politician named Burger Sanders, with a bun for a forehead and patty for a mouth. Dark humor is another recurring theme: “Would you like Lipitor with that?” “This ‘Kobe’ won’t cheat on his wife!”
Many of Farquhar’s favorites are the ones that are purely art, like the simple line drawing of a mama and baby burger dancing, or the clean-edged diagram that labels each of a burger’s constituent parts. Things sometimes get meta, like the painter shown in front of an empty canvas, sizing up his subject (a leggy lounging burger model) before beginning her portrait.
Most of the pieces are done by adults, not kids, but the restaurant maintains a family-friendly vibe on purpose. Though you can spot one or two extra-talented renderings that place burger buns where people “buns” would be, hyped up cartoonists might want to think twice about going for an X-rated theme.
“Tell them to save their effort and paper,” she says, with an exaggerated roll of the eyes. “Yes, plenty of people have drawn the ‘penis burger’ before, and I’m not going to hang it up anyway.”
Deciding which drawings to hang on the walls — and which to slip into her binder for a possible book she might publish — is one of Farquhar’s favorite things. “My customers are all way more talented than I am,” she says.
It’s not a compliment to be taken lightly, since before she became a restaurateur, Farquhar had a career as a painter. For five years prior to opening Sketch, she ran a shop called Canvas (located right across the street, where Milkcrate cafe is now). There she held formal art shows, and also served light breakfast and lunch, with a menu featuring house-baked pastries.
When the combination of early AM baking and dealing with large artwork got to be too much, she decided to simplify. She moved across the street, swapping out a complex menu for just burgers, and switching from paintings to sketches.
Still, sometimes people don’t get the connection.
“People ask me all the time if my last name is ‘Sketch,’” she says with a mystified grin. “Yeah…no.”