Every summer, a customer walks up to John Murphy Sr., owner of Land Ho! in Orleans, and tells him he has been coming to the restaurant since his grandfather brought him at age five.
“Now he’s bringing grandkids,” Murphy says. “I’m thinking, ‘how old am I?’”
Murphy is, in fact, 79, and 50 years ago, when he bought the restaurant, he was not yet 30. He met his wife O.J. when he was checking ID cards at the door here, and the couple’s three sons, John Jr., Trevor and Dillon, grew up in the business with the youngest once standing on two milk crates to wash dishes. Although John Jr., 44, now runs the day-to-day operations, John Sr. is here every day. He has served five generations of customers and is working on the sixth.
“I never even considered it work,” he says, sitting at a table in the dining room. “It’s something I loved.”
Murphy drives over to the restaurant between 5:30 and 6 a.m. every day to check everything out and talk to the morning cleaner who also does inventory. Then he’s off to the gym, followed by breakfast back at home. He paints for a couple of hours, then returns to the restaurant at 11:15 a.m. to work lunch. In the afternoon, he continues painting at home until 4:30 p.m. or so, then he returns to the restaurant where he mans the “print room,” selling giclée prints of his paintings until about 8:30 p.m. (In 2004 Murphy’s art was exhibited at a gallery on the Left Bank of Paris, a city he has visited 54 times. Locally, his originals are sold through the Addison Art Gallery in Orleans.) Finally, he checks on everything for the second time and jots a few notes for the morning.
“It’s something that I just can’t walk away,” he says. “There’s always someone coming in who I know—families.”
It was 50 years ago on May 14 that the restaurant received its ABC license. A couple of months later the world was riveted by the historic moon landing; a month after that, 400,000 young people gathered in upstate New York for the Woodstock music festival. It was a different world. Yet step inside Land Ho on a Thursday an hour before it opens for lunch, and it’s challenging to say what era you have entered. Servers are chatting and setting tables with their red and white checked cloths. Somewhere, a radio is playing. The bartender is filling his cocktail garnish trays while a young man cleans window glass.
Land Ho was here before Murphy, who hails from North Adams, ever set foot in it. The main entrance was on Route 6A, and it was essentially a bar that, by law, had to sell some kind of food—pre-made sandwiches. In the early 1960s Murphy worked at Anthony’s Pier 4 in South Boston while attending first Boston University, then Butera School of Art. The restaurant business got under his skin, and he eventually worked in several places including for his cousin Frank Richards in Orleans. When he decided he wanted to live on the Cape and run a small business, fish and paint, he bought the Land Ho.
At first, business was slow, and while working as cook and waiter, Murphy often tended bar alone until 1 a.m. In those days, just about nothing was open after 6 p.m. in the entire town, and sometimes he accepted deliveries for Snow’s. He kept a hotel bell on the bar counter for a customer to ring in case he fell asleep watching the news.
Then, on Dec. 30, 1973, the entire Cummings Block burned down, taking the old restaurant with it. Five months later, Land Ho reopened. Shortly before that, the drinking age in Massachusetts had been dropped to age 18. When redesigning the restaurant, Murphy moved the front door to the parking lot side “to contain everyone in the parking lot,” he says, rather than on Route 6A where they used to congregate while waiting for Land Ho to open.
So many things have happened over a half century in here. One day an elderly woman drove through the bar window with a force that threw everything at the bar across the room. And in 1966, before Murphy bought the business, a man rode a horse into the establishment on Christmas Eve, which was then “penny beer day.”
Murphy remembers customers’ orders almost better than their names. He remembered a couple’s order with a span of a decade between their first and second visits: Cutty Sark and soda for him and a whiskey sour straight up for her. During the couple’s second visit, he so impressed them with his memory of their original order that “they came back every day.”
While once Land Ho possessed the only cigarette machine available in town after 6 p.m., now its generator is a draw during power outages. “This is like the bomb shelter,” Murphy says. “Everyone shows up here.”
Come for the clam chowder and take home a print of one of Murphy’s paintings. Come in often enough, and maybe you can become a regular.
Land Ho! at 38 Main St., serves lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dinner is served daily from 5 to 10 p.m. For more information visit land-ho.com.