To the average diner stopping in at 7 Mile House, it’s a great place to enjoy a mix of local food specials with a Filipino twist or international flavor, interesting cocktails or a cold craft beer, and top notch entertainment like jazz, blues and reggae every night. However, 7 Mile House is much more than a fun restaurant and sports bar; it’s a historic landmark reaching back over a century.
The mile houses are one of San Francisco’s 19th century traditions. They began when the gold discovered at Sutter’s Mill created a mad rush to California. The need of these gold-fevered multitudes to get inland gave John Whisman the opportunity to start a stagecoach line from San Francisco to San Jose. The men needed whisky and the horses needed — not beer — but water. The ladies appreciated a clean outhouse just like on the road today. The mile houses were the stopover places along the route that took care of everyone’s needs.
7 Mile House started its life of service as one of these stagecoach stop in 1853. The original owner was an Italian immigrant named Egidio Michili. He took on his sister, Nicola’s husband, Palmiro Testa, as a partner.
Today, it’s the only Mile House remaining in its original location in the Bay Area. It later served the pony express as a stopover where riders rested and changed horses. As the pony express and stages went the way of the dodo bird with the coming of the railroads, 7 Mile House morphed into a popular watering hole. It was often fashionable with a rather wild crowd like the notorious Hayes Valley Gang, a street gang of mainly young Irish toughs who harassed the Chinese, robbed and killed anyone in their way and are sometimes credited, along with other San Francisco gangs of the era, for the origin of the terms “hood” and “hoodlum.” On August 6, 1876 they stopped at the 7 Mile House to see what they could stir up.
During the Prohibition era, patrons looking for whiskey and the company of some very affectionate ladies headed for 7 Mile House. Later it drew in the Marlon Brando wannabes in their biker jackets and Hell’s Angels colors. 7 Mile House continued on its outlaw path into the 1990s when it was raided twice by the FBI for links to a Costa Rican sports gambling syndicate believed to be the largest west of the Mississippi.
Today, all that is changed. It’s a fun place to visit for unique food, drinks, and inspiring music.
Over all those years, there have only been four owners. Present owner, Vanessa Garcia, an immigrant from the Philippines, now an American citizen, had no restaurant experience except when playing in one with her band in Manila but considers herself honored to preserve an important piece of American history. She recounts her feelings when offered the opportunity to take over the then rundown 7 Mile House in 2004. “When I first looked at the outside, I thought, ‘Is it even safe to go in there?’ I knew what I was getting into would be challenging, but because of the history I couldn’t let the opportunity pass”
One of the first things I noticed when I looked at the menu was the large number of Italian items like various linguini and fettuccine dishes. When I asked about her unusually mixed menu choices, Vanessa replied, "We started with dishes inspired by the Old Clam House [a longtime seafood spot in San Francisco], a mix of American and Italian food, but when customers learned I was Filipino they asked for Filipino dishes; so we added our now famous Pork Adobo, authentic Manila Sizzling Sisig, Salpicao and Lumpia. They have become our most popular items since we introduced them.”
Their drinks run the gamut from a wide range of craft beer to concoctions like their Mango or Strawberry Margarita, their Dada-licious, another mango creation with vodka and peach schnapps. Then there is their Bloody Mary with enough food to make a complete breakfast; it’s topped with bacon, lettuce and tomato with some croutons added for good measure.
Some of the dishes are unusual. Like her Sizzling Sisig made of diced meat, pork cheeks, liver, onions, jalapenos, herbs, spices, and rice with a raw egg on top. It’s served sizzling hot and you toss it together and dig in.
Another classic Filipino dish there is Adobo. It’s made with tender pork marinated in soy sauce, vinegar, brown sugar, herbs and spices topped with sautéed garlic and served with steamed Jasmine rice.
Others are traditional favorites with a twist like the Cow Palace Burger. It is a seven inch leaning tower of cholesterol that is delicious if you are “hungry enough to eat a cow.” Vanessa named it in honor the neighboring indoor arena Cow Palace famous for its rodeos. She stages an annual contest where anyone finishing a complete Cow Palace Burger and fries gets a free ticket to the annual rodeo and a chance to compete in the semi-finals burger eating contest and move into the finals which will win them an entire year’s worth of the huge burgers plus other prizes.
Before you rush in to compete, let me tell you that is one giant burger. It’s a double Angus patty, (that’s one pound of beef, folks) two generous bacon layers on each patty, onion rings, sautéed onions, tomato, lettuce, pickles, and mayo with BBQ sauce. It was featured on the Discovery TV show “United States of Bacon.”
I wasn’t up to trying that burger when I visited. I opted instead for Shirley’s Scampi. Each of those good sized prawns required several bites. The garlic mashed potatoes and steamed veggies, broccoli, carrots, crookneck and zucchini squash were cooked just right.
One of my friends chose Sizzling Sisig. It did look good. Some others sampled the 7 Mile Quesadilla. They offer a choice of steak, chicken, Dungeness crab or even an Adobo filling with jack and cheddar cheese, and topped with homemade salsa and sour cream.
Some tried the Steamed Manila Clams as an appetizer. That large bowl of fresh Manila clams steamed in garlic, butter and white wine and served with garlic bread is considered an appetizer. Their appetizers are meal sized.
I saved room for the dessert instead. The No Bake Mango Cheesecake made with fresh Manila mangoes made me glad I did. It was heaven on a plate. Those who got the Funky Monkey consisting of oven-warm banana cake, house salted caramel syrup, banana coins, with a side of vanilla ice cream seemed equally happy.
For dog people, you don’t have to leave Fido home. 7 Mile House is not only pet-friendly, they even have special menu items for him like a dog cigar, there’s no tobacco in it just beef and turkey and dog beer consisting of beef flavored water with a little meat extract. There is a Paws on the Patio menu with things like Smoked Pig Ear, NY Steak, Angus Beef Patty or other choices. Get a V.I.D. (Very Important Dog) card and get your pooch’s fifth meal free. And no matter the weather. You and your pooch will be comfortable on the patio; there is some climate control via heaters and heavy duty clear vinyl drop curtains.
Judging by the crowds the night we dined there, Garcia’s food combinations, colorful mixed drinks, and all kinds of music are a big success. Garcia is the kind of person who shares that success not only with her team but with those in need. She recently hosted an Adobo Cookoff to benefit the READ program to help promote literacy for underprivileged children in the Philippines. She also donates a portion of her Doggie Menu to Mighty Mutts Rescue.
This is a place that, like its original bar, shows the nicks and dents of having seen the wilder side of life and emerged more interesting because of its colorful history.