The couple ordered coffee at the end of their meal. “I’m sorry,” said the woman, “but we just opened and do not have enough coffee cups for all our customers. A table has just left and their cups will be washed momentarily and your coffee will be right out.”
It was Patricia Murphy’s Candlelight Restaurant’s first night in business. The woman was Patricia Murphy. The couple were my parents. They were her fourth or fifth set of customers. It was near the end of the Great Depression, 1935 or 36. It was Brooklyn Heights. Over the years they became relatively good friends, and Lorraine Murphy’s husband became one of my brother’s godfathers.
In those early years into the late 1940’s, Patricia or Lorraine were always at the front door greeting and sitting their patrons. On busy Sundays, they both worked. One spring they opened the back yard for dining. The place was always packed on Sunday afternoons, upstairs, downstairs and in the back.
The restaurant was next to the First Presbyterian Church. Back then, New York City law prohibited a restaurant next to a church from serving liquor on Sundays. Patricia got an exemption that allowed her to serve liquor after 1:00 pm.
It could also have been this: a restaurant in such a location could not serve liquor at all, and she got an exemption so the restriction applied only on Sunday.
Either way, I remember their telling customers when they came in that they could not have drinks. For the most part, her customers did not care. She never had much of a drinking crowd. It was a restaurant, not a bar. When people did drink, it was usually in the lounge which was more of a waiting area used when the place was busy. Rarely were people in it otherwise. Patricia Murphpy’s was not a “hang out” joint.
The sisters were English. Her mother gave Patricia money to come to New York to take violin lessons. I never understood why she did not stay in London for that.
She did not spend a single cent on lessons and immediately opened a restaurant with the handful of bucks she had. It was a hit or miss situation that would show results immediately. There was no money to sustain it in a slow start. And as we know, she hit. And, yes, she did have candles—at night.
All the staff was male Pilipino. I recall that she hired them because she found them reliable and clean. And also because they had a hard time finding jobs in the city.
All male Pilipino, except, of course, for the Popover Girl. She was White Anglo-Saxon. I remember when I was just a little kid, five or six years old, having a crush on the girls who were maybe 13 or 16. They were always beautiful and Ivory-snow clean.
As most of you know, the popovers came into the dining room piping hot and steaming in a straw basket lined and covered in a red and white checked, cotton napkin. Us three brothers swilled these things down very quickly. We could not wait till she made the rounds of the tables, each time starting at a different section when she came out of the kitchen, so we asked her to stop at our table first each time. It got so she gave us two to start with so she could get to other customers. On some rounds she would skip us completely. I would wave my hnad to get her attention to no avail. We were competitive eaters.
Butter would melt right into them, ooze out and dribble down our chins as we ate them. They were served with apple butter. Apple butter is not commonly found now or then.
The flavor of apple and spices on the hot popovers played across the tongue and swirled up the nostrils. It was pure heaven. The popovers were a big crowd pleasure. It was the Candlelight’s signature dish, and it was not even a dish. It demonstrates the power of food because it is what everyone thinks of who dined at the Candlelight. It might be the reason people went there. You could get good food anywhere, but only the Candlelight had popovers. When she opened her second and third restaurants in Manhattan, the apple butter people must have made a fortune.
Occasionally, mother would make popovers at home and serve them with apple butter. But they never seemed the same as at Patricia Murphy’s.
The Candlelight had homemade peppermint ice cream—pink, with pieces of candy cane. A big hit. It outsold all other flavors. We would have seconds with chocolate sauce and sometimes take a container home, which would be gone before bedtime.
It also had meringue glace for desert. This was a high-end item in those days. Her meringues were swirled and donut-shaped. Occasionally, she or her brother-in-law would take us back into the kitchen where we would taste ice cream as it came out fresh from the churner and the meringues as they came hot out of the oven.
The Candlelight was where we took mom and grandma for mother’s day. They both would wear corsages with those big orchids that Patricia Murphy became so famous for years later.
Occasionally, we would go to the one in Manhasset on our way farther out on the island. Or take a special trip to the one in Westchester to see the gardens and the hot houses filled with orchids. The line on Sunday could be horrendous in either place.
Mom would tell the hostess we were friends of Pat’s and she would look at us with the knowing, penetrating look of someone who knew we were lying. She would phone her to prove this to herself and us. When she hung up she would take us immediately into the dining room to a table by the window. Most of the time, I would have the duck. I can almost smell and taste it now. When I was in the city, it would be the London Broil.
The restaurants went downhill after she died because no one could care as much as she did about how they were run. Whoever ran the places let the quality slide—across the board. I suppose, because like some many people who do this, it was because they thought customers would not notice. They did. And the places closed, one by one. Shuttered. In Manhasset, plywood covered the windows—a sure sign of restaurant death.
In Brooklyn Heights the Candlelight was taken over by a man who had to remove the name Patricia Murphy from its maroon canvas awning. He did so by cutting it out and leaving a long whole in it. It made the place look cheap and junky. In time, he closed. And not without reason.
After she opened her restaurants in Manhattan, Pat and Lorraine were rarely in the Heights greeting people at the door. For me, it was then that it began to go downhill. My guess is the food remained the same. What changed for me is we no longer got a hug and a kiss when we came in the door.