An honest, affordable lunch at Murphy’s

by Brian Clarey

With the approach of the 100 th anniversary of the unification of Winston and Salem into one big, hyphenated metropolis, I thought it would be fitting to take a walk into the city’s past by having lunch the way downtown denizens have been doing it for decades.

I made the cut past the Hanesbrands Theatre and through the sweet little park there, coming out on a slim stretch of 3 rd Street for a taste of the past.

Murphy’s Lunch is old-school: a meat-and-two food line that does it cafeteria style — no garde manger, no edible flowers, no fresh-cracked pepper. What you see is what you get, and on this weekday lunch hour I saw under the glass a very appealing breast of chicken with toasty grill marks, resting in a shallow bed of thin broth.

Frankly, I was about to order the pork chops, but when I got a look at them, all breaded and beige, I pulled a last-second audible.

One of the best things about the cafeteria concept is that you can get a look at the actual thing you are about to eat. Like a poor man’s lobster tank, you can even point to the piece you want and they’ll be happy to plate it up for you.

“I want that one,” I said to the counterman. And that’s the one I got. Even if you’ve never been to this place, I bet you could rattle off half the menu items: fried chicken, fried fish, fried steak and other familiar fare in a rotating list of specials; greens, mashed potatoes and gravy, mac and cheese; cornbread and light rolls; a greatlooking cobbler.

I’m in. I took the chicken, which comes on a small pile of gravied rice, and some mac and cheese, the homemade kind, with a top layer of cheddar bubbled off in the oven. Was there any reason not to get some mashed potatoes graced with a different kind of brown gravy? There was not.

And the cobbler, peach that day, was similarly a no-brainer. You take your tray and you bring it to one of the booths against the wall across from the food line, or if it’s busy you go to the back dining room and take a small table.

I took a booth near the front window, watched the staff eagerly and pleasantly engage the customers, which came in a steady trickle through the lunch hour. Most of them were working folks who walked over from their offices and cubed-off spaces. But it’s big with the oldtimers, whose appreciation of cafeteria food is well known, and the hipsters, for whom the retro-cool and camp value is irresistible.

Back in the day, they would have been joined by downtown factory workers, but there’s not much of that going on anymore.

My food was terrific, by the way: the chicken with a grilled bark and tender center, an herb rub lending a note of spice; the mac and cheese as comforting a favorite song, the gravy smooth and peppery and made to be sopped up with a soft, white roll.

And of there’s a valid argument against cafeteria cobbler, I’d sure like to hear it.

Murphy’s is as it has always been — a reliable, convenient stop-off for an honest, affordable lunch.

This town was built on places like this, and by the people who filled their stomachs there before venturing out the door and back to work.


Murphy’s Lunch; 207 W. 3rd St., Winston-Salem; 336.723.5378