Opinion
3 min

The legend of Hamburger Mary’s

Flames, queens and a side of fries

The original Hamburger Mary.

Hamburger Mary’s has been a Village institution since long before we thought of it as a village and has a queer little backstory that may be a bit foggy even in the minds of the current owners.

Earlier in this space, we introduced Mrs G with the story of her launching a string a 1970s clubs, bars and boozecans that began with the Music Room and included Mrs Gogan’s Pool Parlour and The Downbeat and reached a crescendo of nellyness when Blondie’s, a second-floor club on north Seymour, was flooded out of business in a spectacular fashion.

One evening in 1979, shortly after that debacle, hanging out at the Luv Affair, Mrs G fell to chatting with John Kerasiotis, who had co-owned many of our favourite dance halls, including Luv Affair and Celebrities. Mrs G was no doubt polishing up her version of how that flood had happened and letting John know that she was looking for a new opportunity.

“Well, Jerry,” John said, “I’ve got a little place on Denman and they’re not paying the rent. Want to do something with it?”

So Jerry sashayed down to the hole-in-the-wall that is now Cupcakes, tossed some burgers on the grill, and Hamburger Mary’s was born.

This does not exactly coincide with the current official history, but trust me. I was there.

For six months the house was almost literally on fire — flames shooting up from the grill, blues in the night, drag queens with a side of fries.

Note that I said six months. Six months of madness à la Mrs G, and the fire department finally decided those flaming grills were a public hazard (never mind the flaming faggots) and shut the doors.

If you know anything about Mrs G you know that this was only a minor setback. Another hole-in-the-wall was discovered at the other end of Denman in a failing little East Indian takeout; a deal was struck and the move was made. Mrs G fired up the grill, wiped up the tandoori sauce, and Hamburger Mary’s was back in business.

This second start for Mary was a good move, and of course, within days Mrs G had thrown up a coffee table–sized stage and you’d get a full-on drag show with your burgers and sides.

Four years of riotous success, and one day two strangers walked in and asked to speak to the owner.

“That would be moi,” Mrs G must have vamped.

“They were two lovers, don’t you know,” Mrs G recalls, “and I just can’t remember their names. Isn’t that madness! But I do remember that they had matching Cadillacs and wanted to know if I sold franchises.”

What the Cadillac twins didn’t know was that the writing was on the wall — the wall between Hamburger Mary’s and the bridal shop next door. Apparently, the neighbours were finding that their wedding gowns were all starting to feature a distinctive odour… the scent of flame-grilled burgers.

Words were being exchanged, though no real action had yet been taken. But something was going to happen, that we knew.

Mrs G also knew a pair of angels when she saw them. Angels who could buy not a franchise but the whole ball of wax, cobble up $100,000 (fun was cheap back then), and exchange it for the keys.

No mention was ever made of the San Francisco–based Hamburger Mary’s chain, founded in 1972 with branches in every gay “village” in the US. Mrs G had flown completely off their radar, and if there were legal problems to be encountered later, the Cadillac couple would have to deal with that.

All Mrs G knows is that the Cadillac boys ended up moving up to the old Juicy Lucy’s location at Davie and Bute a few months later, once things got too hot in the bridal department.

“I don’t know who owns it now,” Mrs G tells me, “but they did change the name from Hamburger Mary’s Burger Parlour to Hamburger Mary’s Neighbourhood Diner, so maybe there were problems after all!”

What we do know is that the cash Mrs G received in the transaction was enough to open Sophie Tucker’s House of Pleasure on Abbott Street. And that’s certainly another story.