When Vanessa Garcia took over the 7 Mile House at the triple junction of Brisbane, Daly City, and San Francisco, her mother was doing the cooking. She had no restaurant experience, but then again, there were only five things on the menu.
“After two weeks, she wanted to quit,” Garcia says. “Because cooking in the restaurant and cooking at home are quite different.”
Garcia was still working her day job then, and a client introduced her to a woman named Rene Reyes, whose father George had once owned The Old Clam House, a similar restaurant a couple miles north on Bayshore Boulevard. Suddenly, the menu was transformed.
“George Reyes cooked Italian and American food, but he was Filipino,” says Garcia, who was born in Manila. “Our menu, compared to the Old Clam House, was super-similar. The prices were just 40 percent lower. And when people saw we were Filipino, we were asked to cook Filipino food.”
Almost 15 years later, the result is a gloriously eclectic mashup of Mexican, Italian, and Filipino foods, alongside the 7 Mile House’s longstanding burger (too popular to mess with). Lumpia, sisig, and adobo are the strongest sellers. Lunch business is brisk, and local bands and customer loyalty keep the place full on weekends — which is a little surprising considering the circa-1850s restaurant stands next to a PG&E substation and across from a barren field, not far from a towing company and a statuary business that specializes in cemetery monuments.
“When I first started, people were saying that our location was really bad,” Garcia says, “and now they’re saying our location is really good.”
As she details in her book, See You at the 7 — Stories from the Bay Area’s Last Original Mile House (co-authored with Regina Abuyan), success was not instantaneous. The former biker bar’s original customer base had dropped off. Even though the 7 Mile House was almost 150 years old, Garcia says she essentially started from scratch, dropping off flyers house-to-house or handing them out in the middle of the street — whatever it took to get people’s attention.
“We didn’t make much money until nine years after,” Garcia says, “I held on for a very long time, and thankfully my ex-husband at that time had a good job. I was determined to make it work.”
Word-of-mouth is the most effective form of advertising, and Garcia leapt at every chance to do a fundraiser and get the name out. With all the hustle, she’s become something of an amateur historian. Walking around the building — which is really three buildings joined together — she’d long wondered why one section was triangular. (It had been a windmill.) Investigating why some previous owner had installed paintings in front of several mirrors in the back bar, Garcia concluded that to be seen was to be jealous.
“Gentleman who would bring their women to the bar would get into fights because the men who didn’t have women would start looking and fights would ensue,” she says. “So they covered up most of the mirrors.”
A few load-bearing poles later got moved because intoxicated patrons kept injuring themselves, but the most significant bit of history pertains to illicit sports betting. The 7 Mile House was attached to Ron “The Cigar” Sacco, who was at one time the most successful bookie in America. A son of a former owner ran the largest gambling syndicate west of the Mississippi from out of the bar, Garcia says, a history that goes all the way back to the early 1900s. People get upset if you suggest their father was a petty thief but proud if you prove their great-grandfather was a murderous pirate, and Garcia takes delight in her establishment’s lore — insisting that it’s all in the past.
“I did get some calls when I first started,” she says. “I think I was getting looked into to see if I would do the same thing, calls like, ‘Are you guys doing football cards?’ I don’t plan to continue that tradition!”
Once, mile houses sat at every interval from Portsmouth Square down the Peninsula, and while there’s a 16 Mile House in Millbrae, it’s been moved. 7 Mile House is the only original one in its original location — but slightly confusingly, it’s the second such establishment bearing that name. The no-mans-land quality extended to time as well as place.
“When I first started the business, it said 1853, so I took that as our founding year,” Garcia says. “Five years ago, we celebrated our 160th anniversary — but when I started doing a really deep dive for the book, I discovered that date was for the first 7 Mile House on Old Mission Road. So we had to celebrate our second 160th this year. I guess you could say I do my best to take advantage of every situation.”
7 Mile House, 2800 Bayshore Blvd., Brisbane, 415-467-2343 or 7milehouse.com
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