Visit the ‘one-man show’ at Murphy’s Lunch

Located in Downtown Winston-Salem, this diner is 72 years old and is now fully operated by one man


Yushuo Wang

The central location of Murphy’s Lunch draws workers in for a quick meal.

Yushuo Wang, Staff Writer

Whoosh, clatter, jingle. The minute hand of the wall clock ticked past 11:30 a.m. Diners filed in and out non-stop, shuffling around the room and filling cups from the drink machine. A man in a bottle-green T-shirt and black apron stood behind the grill station, busy using a spatula to flip burgers while the hot oil sizzled. 

John A. Nikas, chef and owner of Murphy’s Lunch on Third Street in downtown Winston-Salem, greeted each customer without missing a beat at the grill. In no more than 10 minutes, all the customers, whether white-collar workers with waist-pinned name tags, elderly couples taking time savoring pork chops or off-duty Winston-Salem Fire Department workers, received their dine-in plates or to-go containers.

To ensure this quick service, Nikas arrives at Murphy’s Lunch every Monday to Friday between 7-7:30 a.m. He tries to have everything ready by 11:00 a.m. when the restaurant opens. 

“This week was a pretty good week,” Nikas said. According to him, every day from 2 p.m. until the restaurant closes at 5 p.m. is the only time he feels the bustling atmosphere slow down. That’s when Nikas settles down at a table to treat himself to a cup of coffee and a bowl of coffee-and-candy-chips ice cream. 

He takes time with his food and cares about how it tastes to the customer. And I will give him credit for that.

— Pam Mcadoo, Murphy's Lunch customer

Except for the occasional times when one of his daughters assists him at the restaurant, Nikas has been running Murphy’s Lunch alone since he reopened it in May 2022.

“Now John was trying this very new idea for us — a one-man show. One man running everything,” said Jerry Greco, whom Nikas considered a family customer at Murphy’s Lunch.

Murphy’s Lunch, a 72-year-old downtown institution that Nikas took over in 2010, closed temporarily in April 2020 when the COVID–19 pandemic hit. According to Nikas, he did not initially plan to shut down the business and hoped to keep it open by changing its dining-in mode to a takeaway model. However, when people switched to working from home, fewer customers came to support the business, and Nikas decided to close it.

Greco was impressed by the steps Nikas took to prepare to reopen Murphy’s Lunch, which included repainting all the walls, replacing the original ceiling with new tiles and adding a new awning in front of the restaurant.

Brian Gravely, a frequent visitor of Murphy’s Lunch, stopped by one recent afternoon. 

“[Nikas] has items on his hot bar for lunch that you normally can’t get anywhere else unless you cook them at home,” said Gravely, who usually comes in and gets whatever the hot bar serves. On his plate that day were pan-fried boneless pork chops, creamed potatoes with gravy, lima beans and a dinner roll with butter.

The hot bar at Murphy’s Lunch is what distinguishes it from many other restaurants downtown. Laid out in a cafeteria style, the hot table consists of dishes that change frequently.

“You can come here almost every day and still get something different all the time,” Steve Mcdowall said. He pointed at the two meatloaf slices on his plate that Murphy’s Lunch is famous for.

Pam Mcadoo, who visited Murphy’s Lunch three times a week before the pandemic, missed the breakfast Nikas used to offer before the pandemic. 

“He made the best omelet in the whole wide world,” Mcadoo said. “He takes time with his food and cares about how it tastes to the customer. And I will give him credit for that.”

According to Nikas, people want convenience more for breakfast than other meals.

“Breakfast is very difficult to do as a solo,” Nikas said. He plans to start serving breakfast again when the roads closed for construction on Third Street reopen. Recently, he added an ice cream bar to attract young, school-aged children with the knowledge that the construction was for a new location of Kaleideum, a children’s museum. 

In the future, Nikas would like Murphy’s Lunch to be fully staffed in order to provide better customer service and ensure its long-term survival.

“Because I’m serving other people, and I’m by myself, I don’t have the time to show that same excitement to see them,” Nikas said. He wants to spend more time taking care of his customers, especially the regular ones who came to congratulate him on its reopening.

“I want to keep adding to [Murphy’s Lunch’s] future,” Nikas said.