Co-owners Bill Sheals and Gary Moore, who opened Murry’s on July 1, 1985, have been the best of friends since the former hired the latter more than 30 years ago as a bartender at the Brass Bed, a now- long-since vanished nouveau bar-eatery with a dance floor.
You would never know, given its established standing as one of Columbia’s most popular, enjoyable and locally owned restaurants during the past two decades, but getting Murry’s, whose slogan is “Good Food, Good Jazz,” off the ground was not without trial and tribulation – this despite the fact that from the start the two owners had a very good idea of what they wanted to do.
By the mid-1980s Sheals already possessed a wealth of knowledge about the food and beverage industry having worked and managed in various Columbia and St. Louis establishments. Moore, meanwhile, in addition to his ongoing bartending experience, had served as a city planner in Mexico, Mo. The pair felt they could carve out a niche for themselves. They sensed, in non-braggadocio fashion, that at the time Columbia lacked a restaurant that offered all of the following in roughly equal dosages: a neighborhood feel; a comfort level for anyone who came through the door; higher quality food that was prepared to order; extensive hours of operation and customer service that was elevated beyond the standard bar-type vibe on the one hand but delivered unpretentiously on the other.
They also knew – or at least thought they did – that they wanted to be situated in downtown Columbia. But, alas, this was not to be in spite of the fact that their search incorporated Sheals’ extensive knowledge of kitchens and Moore’s keen intuitive and acquired learned sense of spatial use. The two spent close to a year walking around downtown checking into specific types of spaces. They would discover that any of the spots that appealed to them—where they could envision their restaurant sprouting—either weren’t available to rent or buy or if they could be snapped up then the cost of being a tenant or purchasing a space exceeded their financial means.
After a thorough and systematic search the two had all but given up on the idea of opening their own place. Ahh, but all was not lost. Serendipitously, the late Mick Jabbour, at the time one of three owners of Booche’s—Columbia’s oldest bar—asked Sheals and Moore if they would be interested in taking over the place that he and his wife, Missy McReynolds, had acquired a year earlier. What had started out as a promising adventure for Jabbour and McReynolds, became, well, not so promising. Jabbour, who knew Moore (he had no fewer then five separate stints at Booche’s dating to the late 1970s) and Sheals (through Columbia’s food and beverage community) were looking for a spot, had been forced into pulling “doubles” on a regular basis; he was living Booche’s by day and working his recently acquired bar once known as “Andy’s Corner” at night. Understandably it was a bit much for Jabbour to manage; he approached burn out. Although the spot – a rental property n a seemingly isolated strip mall/cul de sac located “way out of town” by mid-1980s standards – was less than desirable, it didn’t take the restauranteurs-to-be very long to consider and accept Jabbour’s offer.
Jabbour and McReynolds had changed their establishment’s name from Andy’s Corner to “Murry’s,” but for whatever reason they left the kitsch looking stained glass window bearing the restaurant’s original name that the previous owner had placed in a near-ceiling location. Likewise, they chose to stay with the physical plant’s overall C&W look, an appearance underscored by the all-encompassing cross-hatched wooden lattice walls and exacerbated by the split-level balcony. It would not be that far-fetched to imagine a film where a stunt man, ostensibly shot, could make a fall over the railing to the floor below seem natural.
Shortly after assuming the reigns, Sheals, who owns nothing less than a sharp-witted tongue, and Moore who possesses a somewhat self-deprecating sensibility knew there would be no discarding the Andy’s Corner window; it would stay even though the overall plan was to add a bit of—but not too much, mind you—sophistication to the restaurant. Yes, their desire to have a jazz-and-baseball motif pervade the venue would take shape and eventually create a home-spun character that would resemble the omni-present ivy at Wrigley Field. Still, Sheals and Moore would be cooks, not chefs; they would hire help, not sous chefs; wait staff uniforms would be out of the question but a level of professionalism would prevail.
Moore, in particular, wanted to call Murry’s “Miles”—after Miles Davis. To this day Gary reveres the iconic and seminal trumpeter who hailed from Alton, Ill., which was just east of the Mississippi and St. Louis, where Moore grew up. Nonetheless, unbeknownst to both him and Sheals, who had given his blessing to the name change, the cost to actually officially implement such an alteration proved to be bureaucratically and cost-prohibitive.
Jabbour had brought the name Murry’s from Booche’s. Murry, it turns out, was an eight-foot palm-like plant that sat near the front corner window at the 100-year-plus downtown bar. Eventually “Murry” became part of Jabbour’s new restaurant, however sometime during or shortly after the transition, Murry morphed from lush green plant into fair-sized stone gargoyle, which remains planted in the restaurant’s vestibule between the outside and inside doors. During the course of its life the gargoyle has taken on an ever-evolving androgynous look; no one knows exactly who is in charge of its fashion statement, but Murry alternatively dons—stylishly we might add—either men’s or women’s hats that are interchangeable on almost daily basis.
Everyone who works there knows who/what Murry is – but there have been several occasions when those who wish to claim privilege and seek reservations in a restaurant that doesn’t take reservations say in varying emboldened tones, “I know Murry.” Such pronouncements are, of course, a dead give away that they don’t, in fact, know Murry.
Consistency has become a way of life at Murry’s. From the first day until the present, as Sheals and Moore had intended, Murry’s has kept the same days and hours of operation—Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. The only exceptions take place when the restaurant hosts a special event or one of the “We Always Swing” Jazz Series’ “Sundays @ Murry’s” concerts. Similarly, the kitchen hours remain the same: 11 a.m. to midnight. The a la carte menu offers the same selections throughout the day with the addition of day-time specials and dinner specials.
Columbia’s ensuing Southside development explosion the past decade-plus resulted in an altered perception of Murry’s relative geographical locale. In fact the common belief now is that the restaurant that sat on the outskirts of town is now, essentially located “not that far from downtown.”
After more then two decades and a major renovation in 2001 that saw the kitchen space nearly triple in size and the seating capacity jump from 105 to 135, Murry’s continues to demonstrate staying power. Murry’s has more than its fair share of regulars. What’s more in-house loyalty has evolved into a kind of way of life around Murry’s. The staff has grown from three—the two co-owners and Bill’s wife, Deb Sheals, who is the brains behind Murry’s imaginative homemade desserts—to more than 50 full- and part-time employees who assist in every facet of the business including recreating Deb’s recipes.
It’s fair to say that it is not uncommon to learn that staff tenures—kitchen as well as wait staff and front of house – can now exceed a decade or more of service at Murry’s. This of course speaks to the heart of Sheals and Moore who continue to offer their clientele nothing but good food and good jazz.