The Tollhouse Pie at Murphy’s in Virginia Highland features dark and white chocolate, walnuts, chocolate crust and vanilla ice cream. (Beckysteinphotography.com)
Photo: Becky Stein
Photo: Becky Stein

Murphy’s in Virginia-Highland sets bar high for ‘neighborhood’ spots

The cluster of shops and restaurants near the intersection of Virginia and Highland avenues is enough to make an urbanite salivate. There’s an Italian market with a fine cheese selection, a hardware store where you can catch sports games while shopping for nuts and bolts, a bike shop that sells used toe clips. And then there’s the anchor for it all: Murphy’s. I want to move in.

Murphy’s is truly a neighborhood bar and restaurant. Perhaps it’s like what Applebee’s was before it set eyes on nearly 2,000 “neighborhoods” to which it wanted to serve the same menu.

Murphy’s has existed for more than 30 years, and it has breathed life in its current location in Virginia-Highland since 1992. Time can take a toll at some neighborhood restaurants and bars, making them feel worn and dated. But, here, the food, beverages, service and décor are fresh, vibrant and full of character, very much like Va-Hi itself.

That’s probably why one of my dining partners goes to Murphy’s for his birthday every year — even when no one else can join him. It’s why couples toast to anniversaries there and why families choose to sup at Murphy’s for special moments like graduation and Mother’s Day or for brunch, just because. Murphy’s rarely lets them down. Same here.

Since dining typically begins with a drink, let’s start there. The Murphy Audubon, explained the server, is “our rendition of the perfect Manhattan.” A mix of the restaurant’s hand-selected Angel’s Envy bourbon, Lillet Blanc and Dolin sweet vermouth, this Manhattan was better than many, although I do wish it would have come with a brandied cherry and lemon twist. Less impressive was the Cedar Waxing; despite the frothiness from egg white, the mix of bourbon, sweet vermouth, sorghum berry syrup, lemon juice and cardamom bitters was overly sweet and, for some reason, watery.

Murphy’s also has a small retail wine shop. Name another neighborhood bar and grill that has that. But maybe we should dub Murphy’s a bistro, because it also has invested in a Coravin wine system. This gizmo enables wine to be extracted without removing the cork, thus preventing the bottle of wine from oxidizing.

Big picture: It enables restaurants to offer more expensive wines by the glass, but at a more affordable price.

Cheers and thank you, such as for the Claude Riffault Sancerre that I paired with a satisfying appetizer of flash-fried calamari with a sweet apple cider mignonette, then kept sipping on through entrees like a plate of Gulf shrimp and cheese grits with a sofrito too sweet for my palate and forkfuls of my dining partner’s health-kick pick of fillets of grilled Georgia trout atop toothsome wheat berries, green beans and carrots.

Murphy’s is not reinventing the wheel with classic offerings like a burger with bacon, Swiss and avocado mayo, with a side of truffle mac-and-cheese that our server happily swapped in place of fries. Or with roast chicken that, despite a nice tarragon accent, didn’t top the charts for this staple poultry offering. But I wouldn’t go to Murphy’s looking for new-new American cuisine.

I’d go to Murphy’s because the dishes are prepared well, and are complemented with thoughtful touches that add up to solid, seasonally inflected, composed dishes. Take, for example, a Wednesday special of venison. I wouldn’t expect a neighborhood restaurant to set that medium-rare, deeply flavorful piece of meat atop a take on tabbouleh that included white and black quinoa and green fava beans. Color. Texture. Flavor. Bite after bite after bite.

Likewise, with a salmon steak that held gorgeous sear marks served over a better-than-average housemade gnocchi speckled green from an herbaceous oil blended with basil, pea shoots and other spring greens, gently tossed with peas and more fava beans. And, again, with a Friday special of a succulent veal strip loin that became a near garden bed for a scattering of brilliant purple violets.

Dessert here is a delight. The signature Tollhouse Pie of dark and white chocolate, walnuts and vanilla ice cream was enough to make me swoon. More so when ordering it with the recommended Dow’s 20-year tawny port. My table fought over that pie and the other sweet endings that comprised the Dessert Trio — a vanilla bean panna cotta and the Bonzo, a layered dessert of fudge brownie, cheesecake, dark chocolate mousse and whipped cream — a steal at $8.

Which brings me to my final point: value. Considering the seasonality and execution coming from the kitchen; beverages — wine, in particular — that attempt to match the food in quality and offering; service that is both proficient and pleasant; and a space with so many nooks and crannies that it’s hard to say which is the best seat in the house (it depends on why you’re there), when I take a seat at Murphy’s I am getting a lot for a reasonable price, and far better than any other “neighborhood” restaurant I know.

Like I said, I want to move in.

Murphy’s