While killing time browsing the wine shop on a bustling Saturday afternoon, patiently waiting for my table, I’m struck by an odd realization: Never underestimate the transformative power of a good cup of coffee.
I’m at Murphy’s in Virginia-Highland, a staple of the neighborhood for 33 years, home to one of the most celebrated brunches in the city, and one of the most consistent dining experiences in town.
Most of the classic Atlanta restaurants that we feature for this series survived over the years by sticking to what they do best, and many have retained such loyal customers by providing them with the same experience, and many of the same dishes, that they remember from their childhood. In many cases, it is the resistance to change, the resistance to chasing the new dining trends, that kept their tables full as the decades passed by. Murphy’s is a case study in how evolution can be the key to success.
Owner Tom Murphy is originally from New York, but grew up in Atlanta for the majority of his life. When his parents would reminisce about their time in New York, they would talk about the neighborhood ethnic delicatessens as something they missed living in Atlanta. At the time, Atlanta didn’t have anything close to that. So, when one of his classes at Georgia State University asked him to do a feasibility study on opening a business, Tom chose the concept of opening a neighborhood deli in Virginia-Highland. He liked the idea so much that he got a loan from the bank and turned his project into a reality, despite being only 21 years old.
When Murphy’s ‘Round the Corner first opened in 1980, it was a shadow of its current self. Instead of its current location at the intersection of Virginia and North Highland, it was “around the corner” on Los Angeles Avenue. Initially a lunch-only destination, the core of the business was the deli counter, serving from-scratch salads, soups and sandwiches. It was in those first few years that Murphy’s began evolving into something more than a neighborhood deli.
Whether it has been luck, foresight, good taste or a combination of all three, Murphy’s has been on the forefront of many of Atlanta’s dining trends. From its genesis, Tom focused on stocking Murphy’s with quality ingredients, doing most of his sourcing from local farms and markets. And his coffee was no exception.
At the time — this was before the era of a Starbucks on every corner — Murphy’s and Cafe Intermezzo were the first two restaurants in Atlanta to offer cappuccino. And, in keeping with his dedication to quality ingredients, Tom stocked his shelves with high-grade coffee that he served every morning. It was this coffee that led him to forever alter his business.
In those first few years, everything from the sandwiches to the coffee was served on disposable plates and cups, which cut down on the labor and cleanup. But Tom’s father finally got sick of drinking his son’s excellent coffee out of a Styrofoam cup, so he spent nearly six months bugging his son to switch to ceramic mugs. Tom finally caved in 1983, but going to ceramic meant adding a dishwashing station and additional staff to his kitchen. Adding this infrastructure opened the door for Tom to expand his dinner service and to start serving a proper breakfast.
So, a cup of coffee gave birth to Murphy’s famous brunch and began the transition from a delicatessen to a restaurant. After moving to the restaurant’s current location in 1993, the deli stayed in operation until it was eventually scrapped in 2001 and the space was converted into the wine bar/shop that stands today.
Murphy’s is perhaps most well known for its brunch service from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday. Dishes like the Georgia Shrimp and Grits ($14), served with a spicy andouille stew and a perfectly runny poached egg, are a staple at brunch. Other favorites include the signature honey cured ham Benedict, Eggs T. Murphy ($10.50), or the crabcake Benedict ($14.50) with jalapeno hollandaise.
While most may consider Murphy’s the house that brunch built, many of its more successful alumni — such as Hector Santiago and Michael Tuohy — have gone on to open well-regarded dinner restaurants. After each evening we spend there, we are always left wondering why we don’t return for dinner more often. The exposed brick of the breezy interior adds a comfortable coziness, and the informal yet enthusiastic service is always on point.
Murphy’s current chef of two years, Ian Winslade, turns out some fantastic dishes, particularly with his seafood. A plate of perfectly seared sea scallops ($23) comes mixed with smoky chunks of rich ham hock, polenta, pistachios and caramelized cauliflower, all sitting in a mandarin orange jus. And Winslade’s current rendition of the grilled North Georgia trout ($18) is a treat, the acid of the Meyer lemon and ricotta ravioli pairing beautifully with the sweet corn and piquillo peppers.
What sets Murphy’s apart to me from most other long-standing Atlanta restaurants is that you don’t feel like you are dining somewhere that has been in business since the Carter administration — Tom and his team manage to continually keep the experience fresh and relevant.
So, it makes you wonder — where would Murphy’s be today if it still served its coffee in Styrofoam cups?
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