Land Ho!

By / Photography By Cori Egan | May 12, 2014
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john murphy land ho stands behind the bar

A Welcome Sight Indeed

In 1969, the timing was right for the Ho (as it’s known to the legions of loyal customers) to take hold and prosper, for the total number of liquor licenses in the Town of Orleans at the time was three: The Capt. Linnell House out near Skaket Beach, The Orleans Inn on Town Cove, and the Land Ho. The Linnell House had a club license, so that meant you needed to be a member to imbibe there. The Orleans Inn would close at 5:45 pm so the owner could get home in time to watch the six o’clock news every night. That left the Land Ho as the only game in town for weary travelers and townsfolk looking to quench their thirst. And owner John Murphy was there for them, dutifully staying open until one a.m. each and every night whether or not anyone actually walked through the door. On more than a few occasions, John wouldn’t see a single customer after seven p.m.

The Magnificent Seven…teen

The first summer John had plenty of thirsty tourists looking for a spot to eat lunch. If it was dinner they were after, they were out of luck—the Land Ho only served lunch in those days. That first, long, cold lonely winter was looming, however. Murphy didn’t now how he’d survive. Good timing struck again, for it was that winter when construction began on the new regional high school in Eastham. Among the crew were 17 off-Cape workers who would arrive on Monday morning and stay through the week in a local motel. Every Monday through Thursday, the men would come in for a few beers after work and stay until 6:45. Since the Land Ho didn’t offer dinner, they’d bundle up and head off to Stan & Margaret’s down the road, which served home-style comfort food until seven p.m. “I remember Margaret would call up to let the guys know what was for dinner,” John recalls. “She’d ask how many she could expect. I’d say 17. It was always 17, no matter what they were serving,” John laughs.

The second winter it was more workers who would stay the week while building nearby condos. The third winter it was a band of hippies who had moved into homes for winter rentals after camping in Nickerson State Park for the summer. It was those hippies who pushed for John to add wine to the list of offerings. “Tavola Red. That was our first wine. It was awful, but they seemed to like it,” John says, shaking his head.

The Land Ho was an established bar in Orleans long before John Murphy bought the place, operating under various marine-themed names like The Ship Ahoy and The Quarterboard Lounge. It may have been a seedier place than the family-friendly spot it is today, but that’s a testament to the spirit Murphy gradually ingrained in the place over the years. “My father said he would kill me if he ever heard that I went into that place,” John’s wife O.J. points out. Into “that place” she did go, and the young owner happened to be working the door checking IDs that particular night. He remembers it well. “In walks this cute little blond, and I check her ID and say, ‘Anyone who’d put Olive Jean Ellis on their license has got to be real.’” After another visit for pizza a week later—despite that fact that it was with her boyfriend—their fates were sealed.

From The Ashes, A Beer-Soaked Phoenix

After weathering the first few years of seasonal oscillations, with O.J. by his side, things were looking up for Murphy when disaster struck. On December 30, 1973 a fire broke out in the mammoth three-story building that housed the Land Ho. The conflagration consumed nearly the entire building…with the notable exception of the Ho. It was as if the joint refused to go down with the rest of the building. Firefighters were convinced that every stick of wood in the place had become so beer soaked over the years there was no way it could burn. Still, it took nearly half a year for Murphy to re-open and, when he did, the people came and rejoiced. They came with friends. They came with their kids. And as they did, Murphy began serving more food options.

The first special was the roast beef dip. A menu staple to this day, paper-thin roast beef heaped on a small sub roll with a warm jus, it can make even the most hardened diner smile with delight as the subtle saltiness of the dunked sandwich hits the tongue and, inevitably, dribbles down the chin. Over the years, the menu has been quintessential local pub fare: club sandwiches and burgers, perfectly golden shoestring fries, and all the best-loved fried seafood entrees are gobbled up by the growing crowd of fans. The seafood, much like the rest of the menu options, is offered in a wider array these days. Working with two local fishmongers and three different oyster farms (Brewster, Dennis and Orleans) ensures that the Land Ho provides the freshest day boat catches seven days a week.

The Word Goes Out As The Ship Comes In

The road to eatery immortality is littered with failed attempts that otherwise should have succeeded had more people only known about them. Countless places that had incredible food, a great location, or just a “really cool vibe” might have flourished had word gotten out about them. There are plenty of options to let the world know you’re there. There’s advertising, and then there’s Barry Clifford. Clifford, the now world-renowned pirate hunter, was still deep into his search for the pirate ship Whiddah, when he set up a makeshift office at a table in the Land Ho. Hunting sunken pirate ships makes for a great story, and news programs near and far came to interview Clifford at his “office”. Evening Magazine, NBC News and even Walter Cronkite brought with them exposure that no money could buy. Murphy extended Clifford a line of credit that did not sit well with Murphy’s accountant, but John knew it was credit well spent to get that kind of publicity. After Clifford discovered the Whiddah and the treasures she had in her holds, the first debt he settled was with a check to the Land Ho.

Like the shifting sands of the outer Cape, diners’ tastes have evolved over the years. So too have the offerings at the Land Ho. Along with the menu mainstays, new favorites have emerged. The clam pie may not be a mile high, but it stands three inches tall and is topped with a lemon clam sauce, and it’s a crowd pleaser. It’s actually an old recipe from O.J.’s grandmother that they follow to the letter. The straightforward menu is augmented by the ever-changing blackboard of specials. Upwards of 17 additions are offered at lunch and dinner, along with over half a dozen desserts. Recent blackboard lunch specials included a veal pot roast as well as a chipotle cinnamon roasted haddock. Both the Land Ho’s clam chowder and kale soup have been featured in Gourmet magazine, and the monstrous stuffed clam is a legend unto itself—nearly 40 cubic inches of comfort with drawn butter for you to drizzle on at your own speed.

In addition to the fishmongers, the Land Ho’s long-established ties with local purveyors, like Jay’s Ultimate Produce and Sid Wainer, guarantee freshness. “Using locally sourced fresh ingredients makes our job very easy. We let the product be the star and try not hide the amazing flavors that are already present,” John Murphy Jr. points out. Like the clientele, the ownership is now multi-generational.

Signs Of The Times

As the Land Ho grew from a local watering hole of questionable repute to a family-friendly destination cherished by generations, it also grew into the fabric of Orleans. Donating thousands to local charities in the form of gift certificates and food as well as holding their own fundraisers shows just how much they care about their community. Yet, proof of just how ingrained the Land Ho has become to Orleans is evident as soon as you open the front door. There before you are over 100 handmade business signs hanging from the ceiling. Signs of all shapes and sizes. Every walk of life is represented:  lawyers, landscapers, fishermen, contractors, doctors, dentists and more. Each one is crafted to honor a local business owner and highly-regarded regular. The first sign John had made was to honor “The Auxiliary Board of Directors”, a group of six men who came in every day for lunch. John hung a sign reading “Local Color” above their table in the corner, where it remains today.

In 2010, they expanded the Land Ho empire to include the old 400 Club in Harwich, and it’s become a favorite for a not-quite-so-new crowd. “It’s funny. I go into the Harwich restaurant and I see the kids of my customers in Orleans.” John continues, “They grew up coming to our Orlean’s location, but now they’ve migrated to the Harwich area where they have their own place.” 

What does it take to create a place that is the go-to establishment in town? Delicious food that everyone can afford, central location and distinctive decor are a good start, and the Land Ho has them. What it truly needs is an owner who instills a sense of passion into the restaurant for all to sense, and that’s where the Land Ho rises above. Not the type of passion used as an excuse for a haughty chef to throw a temper tantrum if his way is not followed, but that exudes a love for his product, his staff and his patrons. This shines through when you watch John work the dining room. Not just content to stroll by with a “Hi, thanks for coming,” John will pull up a seat and stay for a nice chat. Looking to the staff is another way of telling just how good an owner really is. Half of the staff at the Land Ho in Orleans have been there for over ten years. Server Patty Bonanno lays claim to the longest tenured employee at 32 years!

What John Murphy has created and which is now continued on with the help of his family and long-running staff, is the quintessential pub: the public house where townspeople gather to stay connected with one another and a place to convene in times of triumph and tragedy. Celebrating a wedding or toasting the dearly departed, cheering on the Red Sox to another World Series or standing in stunned silence while watching the events of 9/11 unfold, the Land Ho has been there to provide a setting to strengthen the bonds of family and friendship.

As an acclaimed artist whose first showing was on the left bank in Paris (his work can be viewed locally at The Addison Gallery in Orleans as well as on the walls of the Ho), it seems as though John knows a thing or two about performance art as well. “This is like live theater here. We only supply the stage, and maybe a few props, but it’s the customers who are the actors, and it’s an ever-changing cast of characters,” John maintains. The roles change and the hues of local color blend and swirl, yet the play goes on. Here’s to many more acts to come for the Land Ho.

Larry Egan is an Associated Press award-winning writer and commentator and host of the talk show “The Handyman Hotline” on Saturdays from 1-3pm on 95.1 WXTK-FM.  Larry lives in Marstons Mills with his wife Cori and Ziggy, the Portuguese Water Wonder Dog.

Article from Edible Cape Cod at
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