Catching Up with Tom Murphy, Dean of VaHi Restaurateurs
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series by VaHi food blogger Denise Romeo spotlighting the ever-popular Virginia-Highland eating establishment, Murphy’s Restaurant, located at 997 Virginia Avenue. Murphy’s is open Monday through Thursday from 11:00am – 10:00pm; Friday from 11:00am – 11:00pm; Saturday from 8:00am – 11:00pm; and, Sunday from 8:00am – 10:00pm. Look for conversations with Murphy’s Chef Ian Winslade and Sommelier Michael Kunz in future issues of The Voice.
By: Denise Romeo
Most of us don’t remember a Virginia-Highland without Murphy’s, the venerated restaurant that is literally the cornerstone of the neighborhood. Those of us who have been here a bit longer recall the first location with its friendly and colorful mural, and its cozy, intimate dining. It was one of the first restaurants my husband and I went to when we were dating in the late 1980s, and was a driving force in the revival of the Virginia-Highland neighborhood over the following decade. I had an opportunity to sit down and chat with owner Tom Murphy at his neighborhood eatery. Looking as though he were seated in his own living room with a cup of fragrant tea, Tom reminisced about how he got his start in the restaurant business and his neighborhood.
Where did you get your start in the business of feeding people?
When I was eleven, my Dad bought a New York-style hotdog cart for my brother and me. We would sell hotdogs to neighbors at Peachtree Battle Shopping Center, to symphony goers at Woodruff Arts Center and at Georgia Tech on game days. During high school, I worked in a wine and cheese shop in Lenox Square which came in handy when my father opened a cheese shop in the Municipal Market (better known today as the Sweet Auburn Market.) So, while my college buddies were still eating Velveeta, I became known as “The Cheeseman.”
During my junior year at Georgia State University, I was taking a management class and the professor asked us to do a feasibility study on opening a business. Since I was running the Cheese Shop, I decided to go with what I knew. So, with the help of a few classmates, I developed the concept of a neighborhood delicatessen. My professor and I actually took that feasibility study to the bank to get financing. Again, going with what I knew, I chose Virginia-Highland because that was where I was living at the time.
How has the Virginia-Highland neighborhood changed in the last 33 years?
Virginia-Highland is one of Atlanta’s oldest neighborhoods and it was around long before I arrived. In the 60s and early 70s, there was an exodus from the neighborhood to the suburbs. The original plans for Georgia 400 had the highway going directly through our neighborhood to connect to Freedom Parkway at the Carter Center. That threat resulted in a collaboration of Virginia-Highland residents – old and new – to stop the highway and “rebuild” the neighborhood. In 1979, when we were just getting started, Virginia-Highland was transitional. While the neighborhood had well-established Greek and Jewish communities, it was also cheap for college kids to find apartments and share houses in the neighborhood. It had an artsy, SoHo/Greenwich Village feel to it. About that same time, it was starting to be desirable to live “intown” again. We knew, or at least hoped, that we were on the ground floor of something that would be much bigger.
Our original location was in the basement of a house owned by John Capozolli (of Capo’s Café fame). In 1993, the house and property were sold and we were forced to find a new location. I didn’t move because I wanted to. I moved because I had to. Looking back, we had the right momentum and it was the right time, so we did. We were fortunate to be able to move to the corner of Virginia and Highland. We went from Murphy’s Round the Corner to Murphy’s On the Corner. We were very excited to be able to maintain an environment that felt as though customers were coming into our home and that we were creating sincere hospitality for them.
What is the most significant food trend that you have seen over the last 33 years?
The most noteworthy change in the food industry is the American diet. People generally seem to be more health conscious and want to live longer lives. Product origin, freshness, and sustainability are major elements of the food conversation today. We are excited to have embraced the Farm-to-Table concept at Murphy’s early on, way back in the Municipal Market days.
There is new dialogue about the need for businesses to be more socially aware in their treatment of the Earth, and also in their treatment of their communities. In fact, this was exactly the reason I started Good Measure Meals which is one of my greatest accomplishments. When my mom had ovarian cancer, I would take her food while she was undergoing chemo. That is when I noticed a gap in the availability of meal replacement services for middle-income families. I took my social entrepreneurial concept to Project Open Hand because they already had the capital assets (kitchens, dieticians, people, and distribution) in place. I invested in the business model and helped Project Open Hand launch it. Today, Good Measure Meals does over 4 million dollars of business, is a major contributor to a non-profit organization, and is a leader in its industry.
Lastly, what is the most important thing you want Virginia-Highland neighbors to know about Murphy’s?
We are STILL here! Come eat!
Earlier this year, we re-introduced our popular Meatless Monday dinners; a three-course, meatless dinner for $20 (or $25 when paired with a wonderful wine selection,) and our brunch has been recognized as one of the best in Atlanta, and in the country for that matter. Some of the most popular items on the huge brunch menu include Eggs T. Murphy, Crab Cake Benedict and Chilaquiles as well as our famous Bloody Mary, which has been praised as being the best in the country by USA Today and Jezebel Magazine. We even offer a wonderful loyalty program called “Friends of Murphy’s” that features a wide-range of benefits including cash rewards, a complimentary birthday meal and access to exclusive Murphy’s events.
Local food blogger Denise Romeo has lived in the Virginia-Highland area for 24 years. She and her husband, Dom, enjoy spending time together cooking and entertaining. You can read more from Denise on her award winning blog at We Like To Cook!