A Miller Avenue institution for 42 years, classic breakfast and lunch spot is laden with memories of Mill Valley’s colorful past – and might just have the best eggs benedict in all of Marin.

Between the Mill Valley Historical Society and the Lucretia Hanson Little History Room at the Mill Valley Library, the official history of the 94941 is well documented.

But what about our town’s more, well, colorful history? From Charlie Deal’s toilet seat guitars and the mysterious Zeppelin Society’s wooden emblem to an incredibly array of art, the walls of Mama’s Royal Cafe on Miller Avenue are covered in the eclectic side of Mill Valley history.

And while Mama’s continues to serve up some of the best breakfast and lunch fare in Marin, its longtime owner, Candace Paine, can serve up a knee-slapping story for nearly every one of the dozens and dozens of paintings, statues, photos, signs, instruments and mementos in the room.

Here are just a few:

The illuminated sign of the former Old Mill Tavern, the one-time center of the local music scene located where Vasco is now at Throckmorton Avenue and Bernard Street. Payne says her boyfriend found it in the dumpster soon after it closed in 1981.
The Charles Van Damme was a sidewheel ferry that had an extremely colorful post-seafaring life. Built in 1916, the Van Damme, named after its original investor, was the first to carry cars, cattle and people between Richmond and San Rafael, according to the Marin Independent Journal. After it shut down 40 years later, it was towed to Sausalito’s Gate Six, the heart of the houseboat community and became the Juanita’s Galley restaurant, and later the Ark after-hours club and a “hangout for some of the biggest rock musicians of the 1960s.” 
Payne found the ferry’s former sign hidden inside the stairwell of a house she owns on Ethel Avenue many years ago. 
Few figures in Mill Valley lore drawn more smiles than the late Charlie Deal, the maker of the famed “toilet-seat guitar” and fixture about town for decades until he passed away in 2007. Deal had an office in the building above Mama’s, and would often work at the restaurant’s outside tables, sanding actual toilet seats for his guitars while patrons were eating brunch. “I couldn’t get rid of him,” Payne says with a laugh. “He was just a sweetheart – and he never, ever stopped talking.”
The “Strawberry Waffle” painting in the middle is by Neil Osborne, who did the cover art for Mill Valley singer Maria Muldaur’s “Garden of Joy” album in 2009.
Every Saturday, a group of guys gather at Mama’s for some tasty food and the latest opportunity to “verball kick each other around,” Payne says. The Zeppelin Society’s members tell those who inquire of their origins that they are the “sole survivors of an aerial disaster,” but not the same one. “It’s hysterica,” Payne says. When they had to move their wooden emblem from the City’s welcome kiosk in 2010 after a car crashed into it, they gave Mama’s the emblem. 
A longtime customer who was in his late 80s gave Payne this metal image that he had gotten off the back of a rickshaw in Thailand. “He traveled the world and his wife told me that she coudn’t keep him away from riding around in rickshaws and on elephants,” she says with a laugh.
When local artist Doug Moran told Payne he was heading across the street to get some tacos at the now-defunct Jack in the Box (where Super Duper Burger is now), she promised to make him the best tacos he’d ever had. Payne delivered, and Moran painting this image of seagulls in the sky, on plywood and affixed it to Mama’s ceiling. “It’s gorgeous,” she says.
Payne says the economic downturn of 2008 and the demographic shift in Mill Valley in recent years has set her back a bit from the booming 1980s and 1990s, when she had a line out the door every weekend. But she says she knows that people are drawn to authenticity – and Mama’s has that in spades.

“There was a boy in here a few years ago that said to his dad, “What kind of place is this?'” Payne says. “The dad said, ‘it’s eclectic,’ and the boy replied, “I don’t know what that means – all I know is this is my kind of place.” 

And while there’s no shortage of breakfast spots in Mill Valley, few can promise the long-running live music residency of Fred Nighthawk and Carolyn Dahl, who have been performing their self-professed “cathouse boogie” mix of blues and boogie-woogie every Saturday and Sunday (11am-1:30pm) at Mama’s for more than 25 years.

“They get this place rocking,” Payne says.

The 411: Mama’s Royal Cafe is at 387 Miller Avenue in Mill Valley. 

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