One afternoon in 1995, Lisa Murphy was prepping 200 banana tarts for dinner service in the basement kitchen of New York’s storied Union Square Café when she and Terry Harwood, who was butchering a tuna, noticed each other. During service that evening, they shared an oven.
“I was in pastry, at the beginning of my career,” Murphy recalled. “Terry was an experienced chef who had been in the industry at quite a few places, and was on his way to help Traci Des Jardins open Jardinière in San Francisco. We only worked together for a month.” At their wedding five years later, at least half of the party had worked with them at Union Square Café.
Vine Street Café, the Shelter Island restaurant the couple started in 2003, is the expression of the shared values about food and life that brought them together from the start. Harwood grew up on a farm, and Murphy played restaurant with a mother who had herself dreamed of being a chef. “We both grew up knowing how to cook … around real food,” she said. “We could tell a spring onion versus a fall onion and we had a similar style.“
Vine Street Café aspires to food just like Mom used to make — assuming Mom was a gifted and tireless practitioner of the most refined culinary arts. When Murphy and Harwood decided to stop working in other people’s restaurants and start their own, they knew it had to be in the style of the clean, simple food they’d made at Union Square Café. By then, Harwood had worked in a number of top restaurant kitchens in California and New York and Murphy had risen to assistant pastry chef at USC. They also had established a high standard for the food at Andre Balazs’ Sunset Beach on Shelter Island when they cooked there in 1999.
Vine Street Café has become one of the East End’s favorite places to celebrate and, thanks to an extremely ambitious takeout menu and the on-site Vine Street Market, not even a pandemic has changed that. “That’s been one really nice aspect of all this,” said Murphy, referring to the year of staying home we’ve all endured. “People here were still able to enjoy the Vine Street food. They had friends come over, and sit outside, and we gave directions for reheating and plating,” she said. “We did an 85th birthday, where the friends bought everything at [our] market and just put it together.”
“Shelter Island has always attracted foodies,” said Murphy, and this year, she also saw many of them deploying Vine Street takeout to elevate the quality of an at-home-cooked party. “You can buy our bread, bake it at home and serve it with some of our Meadow Butter, and you get all the credit.” As the pandemic recedes, she said, people are beginning to return to the restaurant for celebrations, often sitting outside in the restaurant’s shaded garden and sharing a set meal served family style.
Murphy named several dishes that express the Vine Street style of fun, flavor-forward food. She’s especially proud of their Pasta Bolognese, velvety tomato and cheese-coated pasta that Ina Garten featured in her Food Network show “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” Vine Street’s bouillabaisse inspired a regular customer (a Frenchman, said Murphy) to declare, “This is not bouillabaisse. It’s too good!” Murphy’s strawberry shortcake “is just American summer fun. I don’t try to make an elaborate sponge cake. It’s like when you were a kid, and you went strawberry picking … what childhood is all about.”
In their own kitchen, Murphy and Harwood cook every meal together. “I get inspired cooking at home. It’s a little bit more relaxed, and we all work together,” she said. ”When Terry makes sushi, we call it Asian Noodle Night. Teaching my boys how to clean up is my biggest challenge.”
The pandemic has dealt a death blow to many restaurants, but Murphy and Harwood have the best kind of secret weapon sustaining them: family. Their two school-age sons worked at the Vine Street Market during the early days of the crisis. Betsey Murphy, Lisa’s mother, lives on Long Island and provides an alternate home for her grandchildren, backing up her daughter and son-in-law and easing the burden of running a restaurant while raising a family in complex times. Most of all, Lisa Murphy said, she and Harwood have each other. “We’ve always respected one another,” she said. “We push each other to be better, and we have each other’s back.”