St. Mary’s Pub receives legacy status, but faces uncertain future

Photos: Nikki Collister/Hoodline
By Nikki Collister - Published on January 30, 2019.

In addition to several "Best Bloody Mary" awards and a "Best Dive Bar" designation from 48 Hills, St. Mary’s Pub (3845 Mission Street) can now add a new title to its list of accolades: San Francisco Legacy Business.

The 85-year-old bar on the border of Bernal Heights was added to the the San Francisco Office of Small BusinessLegacy Business Registry earlier this month, after a nomination from District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen.

It joins nearly 200 other small San Francisco businesses that have served their communities for two decades or more. In Bernal Heights, their ranks include fellow bar El Rio, as well as Avedano's Holly Park Market and Precita Eyes Muralists. 

The distinction is a welcome one for proprietress Maria Davis, whose business is facing an uncertain future.

In a public Facebook post on January 24, Davis explained that the building that houses the bar went up for sale in September, following a death in the family of the building owners.

Davis told Hoodline she underwent negotiations with the sellers to purchase the building, but was unable to raise the necessary funding and loans to meet their asking price. As of publication time, the building is still without a potential buyer.

The mixed-use building went up for sale in September 2018.

With two years left on its current lease, St. Mary’s Pub is safe in the short term. But its future is dependent on the real estate market.

"My greatest hope is that we can either purchase the building at a feasible price, or whomever buys the building will be willing to negotiate a fair lease," Davis wrote on Facebook. "Either way, unfortunately, our costs will be going up at some point."

Maria Davis has owned St. Mary's Pub since 2010.

Located on the border of Bernal Heights, in a neighborhood officially known as College Hill, St. Mary’s Pub is one of San Francisco’s oldest bars, established in 1933 after the repeal of Prohibition. It was named after St. Mary’s College, the neighborhood’s defining landmark from 1863 to 1879.

Davis shared with Hoodline a recent historical survey completed by E Clampus Vitus, an organization dedicated to the preservation of western history. In it, the organization honors St. Mary’s Pub as "the oldest Repeal Bar in San Francisco with the same name."

The survey also mentions a bar legend "which may or may not be true," suggesting that St. Mary's is haunted by the spirit of a patron who was reportedly shot and killed inside during the 1950s. 

Although parts of the pub’s history have been lost over the years, researchers at E Clampus Vitus were able to gather a list of at least 12 known previous owners spanning the past 85 years.

"It’s a bar that wants to be owned by a woman," Davis joked, noting that its longest and most successful periods have been under the ownership of women.

Plaque dedicated by E Clampus Vitus in March 2018.

When Davis took ownership of St. Mary’s Pub in 2010 with her then-husband James Driscoll, the state of the establishment was dismal.

"It was a dream of ours to own a bar," she said, and even though the interior needed some work, "we saw a lot of potential there."

Using her previous experience as a bartender and bar manager in Boston, Davis opened up the space by uncovering boarded windows, removing a drop ceiling, and replacing tables along the wall with cozy red booths.

"I wanted this to be like a second living room for people," she explained—a place for natives and transplants alike "to find common ground."

Under Davis's ownership, St. Mary's has incorporated a regular schedule of events, with live music and trivia nights every week. The bar's award-winning Bloody Mary menu is offered on weekends between 12-6 p.m., featuring seven different variations of the tomato-based beverage.

The pub's new legacy status has made Davis hopeful for the future. The Legacy Business Historic Preservation Fund, which was approved by voters in 2015, allows legacy businesses like St. Mary's to receive assistance grants of $500 per full-time employee per year.

Should the building's new owner extend her lease for at least another decade, they'd be eligible for rent stabilization grants as well.

"We are looking for good, ethical landlords who want to partner with us," Davis said. "We're pursuing all the options that will keep the bar here," including upcoming fundraisers and a possible crowdfunding campaign. 

Come April, the bar will host its annual anniversary party, celebrating its 86th year in business. Davis hopes to host many more. 

"St. Mary's is a part of San Francisco history," Davis said. "It's emblematic of all the changes the local community has gone through. It would be an incredible loss to our city if it were to close."

St. Mary’s Pub is open Monday-Friday from 4 p.m. -2 a.m. and Saturday-Sunday from 12 p.m.-2 a.m. 

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