It was a match made in culinary heaven. Sally Shamrell-Murphy and Glenn Murphy, the new owners of The Cork Tucson, first met at Backstage, a bar and live music venue next door to what was then Jonathan’s Cork. Glenn, a native of Perth, Australia, owned Backstage. Sally, a University of Arizona alum, was covering live music outlets as a reporter for KVOA TV.
They eventually married and lived in Australia and Los Angeles before returning to Tucson just before the pandemic. This past March, when the deal was made for the Murphys to buy the venerable steakhouse from longtime owners Jonathan and Collette Landeen, Sally was doing the weekend weather at KVOA, filling in for a reporter on maternity leave.
Laughing, Sally said of the coincidence, “Glenn and I looked at each other and it was like, ‘Did we just take a step back in a time machine?’”
In effect, they did step back in time — and plan to stay there in most important respects. Glenn, who has opened and operated restaurants and bars on three continents, said, “We made a promise that we weren’t going to come in and turn [Jonathan’s] into a sushi restaurant. It’s an old established spot, it’s been here nearly 60 years. People like it because they know what they’re gonna get, great food, great quality service.”
He added, “People will call in and make a reservation for a specific table, they’ll say, can I get Table 43? When we came in, they were worried about things like that changing.”
Among the factors that have ensured that the promise of continuity will be honored: Chef Jonathan Landeen handed down his recipes to the Murphys as part of the signing agreement. In addition, the Cork’s staff is largely unchanged, though some members have been given new responsibilities. For example, Angel Coronado, the son of the restaurant’s longtime kitchen manager and himself a 16-year veteran of Jonathan’s, is now taking over his father’s job.
Premier cuts of meat, skillfully prepared, have been the restaurant’s mainstay from its debut in 1966 as the Cork & Cleaver, and they remain the menu’s centerpiece. Among the crowd-pleasing entrees — lamb chops, filet mignon, barbecue duck, surf and turf—prime rib continues to be the most popular.
The leftovers, in the form of meatloaf, are crowd pleasers too. “We don’t add anything to it.” Glenn explained. “We use only the product we have. So the more people that buy steaks, the more meatloaf we have.” On Meatloaf Mondays, the starring dish is sometimes sold out by 5:30 p.m. — and the kitchen opens at 5 p.m.
Leaning into the widespread appeal of retro comfort food, the Murphys plan to introduce some 1970s classics—as Sally put it, “Dishes from when I first learned to cook, like chicken cordon bleu.” In season, they also plan to add such appetizers as Oysters Rockefeller and Oysters Kilpatrick, the latter made with bacon and Worcestershire sauce. “It’s a European dish that I was raised on,” Glenn said. “I love it.”
All indications suggest that the reception for such new old dishes, including those created in overseas kitchens, is likely to be enthusiastic. For example, many of the Cork’s patrons were excited to find Eton Mess — mashed meringue with strawberries and housemade Chantilly cream — on the Mother’s Day specials menu. Glenn mused that he probably shouldn’t have been surprised that a lot of guests recognized the English dessert. “We get a sophisticated crowd. A lot of them are probably in Europe right now,” he said, alluding to Tucson’s mass summer exodus.
While the time-honored staples have been retained, underrepresented sections of the menu are being augmented, especially the salad and seafood offerings. Glenn said, “We’re adding wild-caught Alaskan halibut and salmon. I’m into ocean photography, and sustainability is very important to me.”
Which brings us to the addition that will doubtless spark conversation. Catering to the adventurous palates that savor the restaurant’s wild game offerings like bison, venison, and ostrich, Glenn is channeling his Australian roots and adding kangaroo to the menu in the fall. Anticipating concerns about this unfamiliar protein, Glenn emphasizes that the animals are not farm raised and that they are far from endangered. He said, “It’s really important to understand that there’s only 25 million Australians and 250 million kangaroos.” The export and sale of Australian kangaroo meat is carefully regulated to ethical and quality standards.
And while much has been made of the passing of the meat cleaver to new owners, the Murphys have not neglected the restaurant’s “cork” component. The well-stocked bar, which opens two hours earlier than the restaurant, has always had its own loyal customers, and an enhanced spirits program will be sure to please patrons seeking such steakhouse complements as rare bourbons and high-end tequilas.
The introduction of half-price wine specials every Wednesday during the summer, drawing from some 75 bottles in the cellar, has already given Cork customers reason to celebrate.
The restaurant is known for its cozy, romantic atmosphere, created by a series of intimate rooms, each with a kiva fireplace and original artwork, much of it local. According to Sally, an actress whose extensive TV experience has afforded her insight into effective set design, cosmetic changes like painting the walls, reframing and repositioning some of the paintings, and upgrading the lighting will restore some of the Cork’s original freshness without affecting the distinctive character of the dining areas.
The biggest change is one that won’t have an impact on the dining experience, except in advance of arrival. Glenn said, “Ultimately, the most difficult thing has been upgrading the technology in the building. We were still doing reservations by pencil. I’m a technology guy and wanted to do online reservations.” Now guests can book through OpenTable — and they are happily doing so. “Our clientele is very tech savvy,” Glenn noted.
For those who aren’t? The phone will still be answered. And requests for table 43 will still be honored — if it’s available, of course.
The Cork is located at 6350 E. Tanque Verde Rd. For reservations call (520) 296-1631 and visit corktucson.com for more information.
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Edie Jarolim has worn many hats, including a sombrero on a one-too-many-margaritas night. She earned a Ph.D. in American literature from New York University and was a guidebook editor at Fodor’s (Random House) and Frommer’s (Simon & Schuster) in New...