By Brandon Wolf
Photo by Theresa DiMenno
Bars and clubs all have their own niches of clientele,” says Mark De Lange, owner of Houston’s new Hamburger Mary’s. “I wanted a place where every member of Houston’s LGBT community would feel like they fit in.”
In late February 2017, De Lange created just such a place by bringing Hamburger Mary’s to Texas. With 17 locations in seven states, the franchise is known for its funky décor, huge hamburgers, and lush drinks. However, what really sets it apart is that each restaurant is also a show bar that features a lineup of professional drag entertainers and other performers.
A Long-Term Dream Is Finally Realized
De Lange says he first thought about opening a Hamburger Mary’s location in 2005, after dining at several other restaurants in the franchise. But it took 11 more years before all the right elements finally came together in the summer of 2016.
“I wanted it to be ‘in the neighborhood’—the area of bars that are clustered on Pacific Street or nearby,” De Lange explains. He particularly liked the Hollywood commercial strip on Hyde Park, just a block east of Montrose Boulevard, that had been fully leased for years.
Then last summer, the Hollywood Style Center decided to close their space in that strip. De Lange moved quickly to secure both a Hamburger Mary’s franchise and a lease on the open property.
The Hamburger Mary’s franchise team traveled to Houston and met with De Lange. The franchise prides itself on creating unique restaurants, each adapted to the local area. They want each restaurant to be a special experience for customers who visit, so no two locations look anything alike.
After the Houston build-out design was developed and approved by the franchisors, the franchise team helped De Lange develop a basic menu and drink list.
“They advise each new restaurant to start with an attractive but basic menu, and then build on it once the restaurant is established,” De Lange explains. “When a restaurant first opens, they want a heavy focus on smooth operation. If the staff is overburdened with too many offerings, the service quality will suffer, and that’s not the impression you want the first customers to leave with.”
It was good advice. During the soft opening, more than 3,000 customers were served. Reviews on the restaurant’s Facebook page show that the guests were pleased with the food and the staff. “But there is more to come,” says De Lange. “The menu will be expanded with lots more offerings.”
The Hamburger Mary’s Shows
Each day a different show is offered. Tuesday is Game Night, Wednesday is Dining with the Divas, Thursday is Fuego Latin Divas, Friday is a Variety Show, Saturday is the Mary’s Illusions Show, and Sunday is the Broadway Brunch.
Hamburger Mary’s restaurants are well-known for their charity work, so all game proceeds are donated to local organizations. De Lange says that in the short time his restaurant has been open, donations have already been made to the Houston Gaymers for $900 and Avenue 360 (formerly Bering Omega) for $1,000.
Bubbalicious emcees the Wednesday Divas show and the first Saturday drag show. Alexyeus Paris emcees the second Saturday drag show. Each show has a different lineup of four drag performers drawn from a sorority of house divas: Tommie Ross, Dessie Love Black, Dina Jacobs, Porsche Paris, Janet Andrews, and a few special-guest performers.
Lady Shamu hosts the Game Night and the Latin Divas show. Michael and Jonathan host the Variety Show. They also co-host the Broadway Brunch, with Violet S’Arbleu. One customer reviewing the Variety Show on Facebook commented: “Who doesn’t love a drag queen floating on a hoverboard while playing a violin?”
The performers spend a minimum of time on the house stage because they are required to “touch every table,” interacting with all the customers and working the entire room. De Lange says that 90 percent of the contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race have either been performers at a Hamburger Mary’s restaurant, or have actually been discovered there.
Designing the Houston Hamburger Mary’s
De Lange points out that his Houston restaurant was the most expensive build-out of all the franchise locations so far. It is also the only restaurant in the franchise that is in a predominantly LGBT area of town. The Houston build-out was completed in less than two months.
Painted in a “Tiffany Blue,” the restaurant has campy decorative touches and several stunning chandeliers. Behind the cashier is a huge painting of Catherine the Great that had hung in the poolroom at Rich’s bar for five years after migrating from Red Square, a straight disco in the Midtown area. Catherine is now embellished with bling and is holding a pink feather duster in her hand. “At night when we close, she touches the place up for us,” De Lange says with a grin.
On the walls are framed caricatures of famous performers beloved by the LGBT community, such as the Village People, Cher, and Cyndi Lauper. There are also campy posters of the franchise’s mascot, Hamburger Mary, set in a variety of iconic paintings such as the Mona Lisa, The Scream, and A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. She is also seen in classic movie posters such as Gone with the Wind, The Birdcage, and The Wizard of Oz.
Tongue-in-cheek menu items include Britney Fried Pickle Spears, a Black & Bleu Boy Hamburger, the Gym Bunny Club Salad, and Blanche Devereaux’s Hawaiian Flatbread. The Classic LGBT Sandwich is of course made with lettuce, guacamole, bacon, and tomato. The signature house dessert is Fried Twinks— two deep-fried Twinkies with raspberry sauce and whipped cream.
From the bar comes “Special Tease” cocktails such as Pretty in Pink, Not Your Granny’s Lemonade, and Mary Queen of the Rodeo (a Bloody Mary).
The huge Original Mary hamburger with all the fixin’s is just like the first one served 45 years ago in San Francisco, complete with a steak knife plunged through the middle to keep it all together.
A 45-Year LGBT Tradition Continues
The original Hamburger Mary’s was a funky, friendly dive that emerged on Folsom Street in San Francisco’s Castro district, pulled together in 1972 on a shoestring budget. Mismatched flatware and dishes, kooky artwork, and antiques added to its authentic hippie-era charm. Billed as an “open-air bar and grille for open-minded people” where everyone was welcome, its staff was friendly and personable, and the food was made-to-order.
Hamburger Mary’s describes itself as “a family of locally owned independent restaurants” rather than a typical restaurant “chain.” The restaurants are unique for their deep roots in the history of local LGBT communities, and for their awareness of the cities they are located in. For example, in Oak Park, Illinois—a mecca of Frank Lloyd Wright homes—the franchise pays tribute to the iconic architect with lots of earthy mid-century touches.
From hosting charity game events and fundraisers to sponsoring local athletic leagues and theater troupes, each location does its part to give back to the community. Over the years, Hamburger Mary’s has helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity. After the Pulse nightclub tragedy in the summer of 2016, franchises held fundraisers for the survivors of the shooting.
Hamburger Mary’s locations include Chicago (two locations) and Oak Park, Illinois; Denver, Colorado; Brandon, Orlando, Daytona Beach, Clearwater, St. Petersburg, Tampa, and Jacksonville, Florida; Kansas City, Missouri; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Long Beach, Ontario, and West Hollywood, California.
The franchise’s branding is built around its campy mascot, Hamburger Mary—a busty, big-haired blond with a giant smile and a sly wink. She shows up in a wide range of outfits ranging from a pirate to a mermaid with a clamshell bra—and most recently, of course, as a Texas cowgirl. Individual franchises have honored her with everything from life-size statues to a neon sign.
For those who have been waiting for the franchise to come to Houston—and for those who are eager to find out what the buzz is all about—stop in and check out this fun new spot. And, Mary—if you want to be sure to see a show, remember to make a reservation!
Family Dining by Day, Show Bar by Night
Hamburger Mary’s is open every day except Monday. The full menu is available from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays, while the late-night menu of appetizers (or “starters”) is served from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. From 5 to 7 p.m., the bar has a happy hour with a different drink special each day.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the first dinner seating for the evening show gets under way at 7:00, with a second seating at 7:30. The show begins at 8:00. All menu items and drinks are available during the show, and servers deliver them quickly and inconspicuously.
On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, Hamburger Mary’s features two evening shows. Seatings for the first show are at 6:30 and 7:00, with the show starting at 7:30. Seatings for the second show are at 9:00 and 9:30, with the show starting at 10:00.
On Saturday, a brunch menu is offered from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. The full menu is offered from 2:30 to 11 p.m., and the late-night menu from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.
On Sundays, the restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Two brunch shows are scheduled. Seatings for the first show are at 11:00 and 11:30 a.m., with the show starting at noon. The second seatings are at 3:00 and 3:30 p.m., with the show starting at 4:00. The brunch menu is offered from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and the full menu from 2:30 to 7 p.m.
Reservations are strongly recommended for the dinner shows. They can easily be booked on the Houston Hamburger Mary’s Facebook page.
An outdoor covered porch is open during restaurant hours for food and drink service, depending on the weather.
De Lange says he hopes to expand the weekend hours to 5 a.m., offering clubgoers a place to eat after the area bars close. A menu of breakfast dishes, starters, and select items from the regular menu will be offered.
The facility is available for private parties and social functions, but only on Mondays when the restaurant is normally closed.
Brandon Wolf is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.