The Secret, Saucy History Of The Original Hamburger Mary’s
This weekend is the 15-year anniversary of the closing of Hamburger Mary’s, the trailblazing gay burger joint since that had been a SoMa icon since 1972. So we tracked down one of the last original Hamburger Mary’s owners to find some fascinating artifacts and get the Grade-A, all-beef history of the cult favorite restaurant from that ruled San Francisco’s 70s, 80s and 90s.
This Saturday, the location’s current tenant The Willows is paying homage with Another Last Call: A Celebration of the Original Hamburger Mary’s. A benefit for Team Wino of the AIDS/Lifecycle, the event will recreate the old Hamburger Mary’s with the “godfather of the gay disco underground” Steve Fabus, Toph One, vintage Hamburger Mary’s memorabilia and booze and burger specials that directly benefit the AIDS/Lifecycle.
HAMBURGER MARY’S IS BORN (1972)
“Hamburger Mary’s originally in 1972 was started by a bunch of people who worked in other restaurants,” said Rose Christensen, who herself started as an 18-year-old Hamburger Mary’s cook in 1974, became an assistant manager in 1978, eventually became part-owner of the restaurant and still owns the building today. “The neighborhood was leather but we were hippies.”
WHY WAS IT CALLED ‘HAMBURGER MARY’S’?
“I’ve heard different stories,” Rose said. “I’ve heard that William S. Burroughs in one of his books refers to a ‘Hamburger Mary’. I’ve heard that there was a woman named Mary who cooked food on the streets after the 1906 earthquake and gave it away. And I’ve also heard that it’s the old gay slang, you call everybody ‘Mary’. It could be all those, it could be any of those.”
A 1970s GAY ICON
Hamburger Mary’s originally sat alongside SoMa leather bars like the Hungry Hole, Boot Camp, Folsom Prisoned and The Stud. “The synergy between Hamburger Mary’s and The Stud was that people would come here, maybe have a few beers, go over there, drink and dance all night and then come back here and eat before they went home,” she remembers. “This was before before Uber and people were like, ‘Is anyone going to the Haight? Is anyone going to the Sunset?’ And that’s how we all got home.”
But the place grew into a huge cult favorite. “By about 1978, we started being discovered by society girls who wanted to be a little bit naughty. They would come in with their shopping bags from the Emporium [now the Westfield Center] and City of Paris [now Neiman-Marcus]. They would come in, and one table would be four guys who were totally hung over from the night before having Bloody Marys and lunch in some leather, and then there’s be some guys in business suits and there’d be some fancy ladies from Nob Hill and Pacific Heights. You’d look around, and it was like everyone in San Francisco. It was a complete microcosm. It was a little bit of San Francisco, and they all converged here.”
Before long, Sean Penn, Margo St. James, Tom Ammiano, and Bill Graham were all Hamburger Mary’s regulars.“In the 80s we started getting really popular with tourists, punk rockers, politicians,” Rose said. “That’s when we started getting mentioned in Herb Caen a lot.”
“Divine came in after a show and was holding court and had about 8 or 10 people with her,” she remembered. “Obviously hung over and drinking, drinking, drinking. At one point she got up, walked out, threw up in the gutter and came back in. We were like, ‘Oh! It’s the Divine stamp of approval!’”
In the 90s, Hamburger Mary’s had visits from Conan O’Brien, Chelsea Clinton (with Secret Service!) and a celebrity couple who were famously nailed by paparazzi coming out of Hamburger Mary’s.
Then-popular actress Sharon Stone was secretly fucking then-San Francisco Examiner editor Phil Bronstein in 1997. Supermarket tabloid The Globe caught them walking out of the restaurant together, writing, “We caught the lovebirds lunching at Hamburger Mary’s following a romantic night together at a condo Sharon rented while filming her upcoming sci-fi movie ‘Sphere’.”
Back in the early 1980s, they didn’t call it AIDS yet — they called it “GRID” (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). “I remember a friend of mine who worked here, Tommy,” Rose said. ” We were reading the paper and there was an article about the ‘gay cancer’ epidemic. And I remember he and I looked at each other and we said, ‘Everything’s gonna change. This is not good. Things are gonna change’. And boy, did they.”
Hamburger Mary’s clientele weas dying at alarming rate, as was the clientele of all the city’s gay establishments. “I had guys who’d come in and they wanted their last meal to be here,” Rose remembered. “They would come in and they would be completely emaciated and order this big honkin’ burger and take two or three bites.”
“We lost two of our owners. We lost hundreds of people,” Rose said. “That happened all over the city. The whole fabric of the city changed. Until the mid-90s, we were losing people at a regular rate.”
DECIDING TO CLOSE HAMBURGER MARY’S
Business remained healthy at Hamburger Mary’s — but people didn’t. “Sometime between 1992 and 1994 I was diagnosed with Hepatitis C,” Rose told us. “I did the early, early treatment, a year of Interferon, grueling treatment, and I was not cured.
“In ‘99 the whole Dot Com thing was happening,” she said. “I just didn’t have the energy to do it anymore. (Co-owner) Amy was getting sick and tired of it too. Sharon, our other partner, she’d had a massive stroke in ’96 or ’97.”
“By the end of 2000, we sort of started seeing some of the Dot Com money start going away. So Amy, Sharon and I talked about it and we decided, ‘Let’s just put it on the market and see what happens’. So we put it on the market at the end of March and got an offer almost immediately.”
So Hamburger Mary’s was sold, right before the 2001 recession hit. “By September of 2001, I was so glad. It was the smartest thing I ever did,” Rose said. By then, Rose was cured and started volunteering full-time for Hepatitis C Support Project.
LAST CALL AT HAMBURGER MARY’S (APRIL 23, 2001)
The terms of the sale were that the new owners would get all of the art on Hamburger Mary’s walls. Except it didn’t quite happen that way. “There were a couple of people, one of them was an assistant manager, they came in at night after we closed, and they went to Kinko’s and took [art] off the walls and had it copied,” Rose pointed out. “And they put the copies on the wall and kept the originals.”
“I’m glad they did it. They auctioned it all off and it went to a good cause.”
There are still Hamburger Mary’s franchises today (they’re still trying to put one in the Castro), but this is not really the same business. A 1978 ownership split left Tom “Toulouse” Mulvey in charge of the SoMa location, and business partner Jerry Jones (a.k.a. “Trixie”), who inspired the franchise, with a Honolulu location and the rights to the name. Trixie died and left the franchise rights to his partner, who then lost the rights in a lawsuit. The current Hamburger Mary’s franchises have no affiliation to the original restaurant, they just continue to franchise the name.
“You can’t duplicate what happened in San Francisco in the 1970s,: Rose said. “It was a moment in time. You can’t franchise a feeling.”
Another Last Call: A Celebration of the Original Hamburger Mary’s. is Saturday, April 23 at The Willows. and is benefit for Team Wino of the AIDS/Lifecycle. All proceeds of the event go directly to the AIDS Life/Cycle.