We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.
If you didn't know where to look for Billy Murphy's Irish Saloon, you might never find it - and that's just the way the Murphy family likes it. Tucked in a mostly residential corner of East Falls where one-way streets weave through the small hills behind the Regional Rail line, the bar has been a neighborhood fixture as long as anyone can remember. But it wasn't until William (Billy) Murphy and his wife, Patricia (Patty), took it over in 1977 that the place became a gathering spot for families and friends of all ages.
Born in 1949 and raised by a single mother in North Philadelphia's Corpus Christi parish, Billy Murphy was always more cheerful than circumstances seemed to allow. Though he had a rough childhood, his determination scored him a football scholarship to Villanova. After a knee injury ended that dream, he started bartending for a living.
In 1975, he met his future wife during a weekend jaunt to Avalon. The pair hit it off immediately, and - despite the misgivings of Patty's father, Commonwealth Court judge and former Philadelphia District Attorney James C. Crumlish - they married within a year.
Recognizing that her new husband's gregarious personality would be suited to running his own place, Patty helped Billy finance the purchase of the tavern in East Falls.
Under its previous incarnation as Jack Greeley's Steak & Stein, the bar was a rough-and-tumble shot-and-beer joint, but the Murphys set about transforming it into something more welcoming.
Billy had a knack for cooking, so he added a menu of made-to-order hoagies and cheesesteaks, and "the Saloonery," as it became known, built up a diverse clientele. Office workers, school kids, politicians, athletes, college students and staff at the nearby Women's Medical Hospital all adopted Murphy's as a second home.
Billy spent nearly every day and night in his saloon until 2005, when an abdominal aortic aneurysm took him out of commission. Though doctors saved him, his mojo was slowed considerably and he was in and out of the hospital, so Patty and their son Michael (Mike) stepped in to help run the business. Billy died in 2011 at the age of 62.
Now 35, Mike Murphy oversees most the day-to-day operations at the bar, with assists from Patty on weekend mornings. On a recent afternoon, mother and son pulled up seats at a table in the back corner of the wood-walled room and talked about how tough it was to convince the original blue-collar crowd to stop cursing and harassing women, and why Center City's boom isn't necessarily great for outlying neighborhoods, but Uber and Yelp are.
How did you manage to buy a bar with your husband when you were just 26 years old, Patty?
Bill had such a grand personality, and I figured he couldn't be happy working for anyone else. So we went in search, and found this. I sold my car for $2,000 and borrowed $5,000 for a down payment. We originally had a silent partner, but he bailed on us within two months. So the first years were pretty rough. We had a take-back mortgage and a bank mortgage. But we made it through.
Did you make changes to the place?
Not in appearance, not really. It had a kind of ski lodge theme, so we took down the wooden signs of all these ski resorts all around the bar, and skis up on the wall. And added more food. But the main difference was the change in the customers. The crowd that used to come into Jack Greeley's place, they were not happy with Bill telling them they couldn't curse, and couldn't give girls who came in here a hard time. I think he came home with a couple black eyes in the beginning, from trying to straighten it out.
The first eight years were the toughest. Bill would come in at 8 in the morning to prep for 11 o'clock opening, stay through the day, come home at dinner and then go right back in again and close. He just kept going; he was amazing.
His personality made the bar what it was?
The big thing about him was he made everyone feel welcome in here. You could be a multimillionaire or a blue-collar roofer, and he would introduce you, and you would start finding things in common. He made everyone really relaxed and comfortable. And still, if you want to come in and sit by yourself and not be bothered, bad place to be. Because somebody's going to talk to you. And he was generous. He would hold fundraisers for St. Bridget's, the school that used to be here, McDevitt Playground, the Old Academy theater (where Grace Kelly got her start), the Police Athletic League. Anyone that walked in to ask for help, really.
Your first memory of this place, Mike?
Running around with my brother and sister after church. At the time, bars were closed on Sundays, so it was the day to come in and clean up. My parents would straighten up and us kids would try to help...and play games like Golden Tee.
Did you work here growing up?
I worked here ever since I started driving. I had just bought my first piece-of-crap car, and one weekend my dad looked at me and said, "So, lot of homework?" I said no and he was like, "Good. You're cooking for me." I worked here through high school and college. I went to Temple for marketing, but when I graduated my dad was going through health issues, so I decided to focus on this. My older brother is a commercial lender, so he helps with the financial paperwork and that kind of thing.
Has the neighborhood changed a lot?
It has. It was always a nice, blue-collar neighborhood but also had a lot of prominent judges, lawyers and DAs - because you have to live in the city to work in the city, and this is such a great, quiet place. Around 2005, it went from being a hidden gem to very popular. The real estate market blew up. People who raised their families here were like, "I can sell this and get a house in Plymouth Meeting with a driveway for not much more?" So a lot of the neighborhood switched over, and you started seeing a lot of new, younger families moving in.
Did you make changes to accommodate the new crowd?
When Michael got involved, he started making changes, and really brought new life to the place. He got all these new beers - we have 10 taps now, including a hand pump with our own cask that we send out to brewers for special beers - and also changed the food. Added a lot of salads, chicken pot pie, great burgers, hand-cut fries, doing a lot of stuff from scratch.
So you're the chef, Mike?
Well, kind of. I can't say I'm a chef because I have too much respect for those guys who actually went through training and everything else they do to earn that title. I'm a line cook that has a chef friend who helps me out when I need - Rob Mullen, of Campbell's Place in Chestnut Hill. He teaches me a lot.
Did the change in the neighborhood affect sales?
Well, Center City has changed a lot, too. Fifteen years ago, nobody was hanging out in the city - it was always around the neighborhood. Now the city's going through a whole rebirth and a lot of people are going down there now. But we're still doing well. Yelp, that definitely changed the game. We have great reviews and it helps - we hear from people all the time that's how they found us. Because we're tucked in the back corner of the neighborhood, which we like, but nobody really drives back here.
So the Internet has been good for business?
Yes and no. Cell phones and texting means people never stay in one spot very long. You'll see a huge group of people come in, but then after an hour they'll leave. One thing that's great is Uber. Cabs never came through here, so people would be hanging out and then at 1:45 say, "Could you call us a cab?" Taxis would show up like an hour later, if they showed up at all. Then you have to worry about the LCB, and having customers in here after 2:30. Now with Uber, it's a lot better. Huge. I hope they stay around. It keeps people from drinking and driving. I know I go out probably twice as much because of it.
Revitalizing the neighborhoods is one of Mayor Jim Kenney's main initiatives. What do you think East Falls most needs?
The main thing is good schools. Or just a good school. Because all these new people who are moving in and love the neighborhood are forced to leave when they have kids. I've never heard anyone say, "I'm glad to get out of here." It's always, "We have to move." It's unfortunate because everything else is great. It's a nice, quiet neighborhood but super-close to the city. Right up Kelly Drive, or up the R6. But once the kids reach school age, it chases everybody out.