Sierra Madre is a small and quiet suburb in the San Gabriel Valley with a handful of nature sights and long-running local businesses. In the northwest corner of town, just past the mouth of the Mount Wilson Trail, visitors can discover the confluence by visiting Mary’s Market, a 100-year-old cottage-sized diner tucked away in the wooded part of town that locals call the Canyon.
Mary’s Market isn’t easily spottable for newcomers: The only signs directing visitors to the eatery are stones painted with its name and an arrow placed on street corners in the Canyon. Similar painted stones can be found on lawns throughout Sierra Madre as a testament to the local support for this institution.
The interior of the cottage is eclectic and rustic, with white walls covered in vintage signage gifted by regulars, as well as framed copies of archived photographs of the Canyon. Sun streams in through three big windows on the cottage’s south side. On the menu is quintessential American fare that feels right at home in a spot like this: waffles and bacon, sandwiches of many varieties, lox and bagels, eggs Benedict with salmon, and a display case of fresh pastries. In staying true to the original incarnation of Mary’s Market as a grocer, there’s still a fridge of cold drinks and an assortment of candy and snacks for sale.
Throughout the day, locals, some of whose patronage to Mary’s began in decades prior, wander in to lean on the counter and chat while enjoying their meals. Also filling the indoor and outdoor tables are local families, solo millennials with a book in hand, pairs of friends, and Angelenos from miles away from Sierra Madre who saw the cafe on social media.
One local observed that the cafe “really is a place where everyone knows your name,” with delicious food as an added bonus. “I’d like to think it’s a place where everyone feels welcome and happy,” says co-owner Heather Morrison. Mary’s Market is a place that honors and is honored by its community. A longtime customer recently celebrated her 60th birthday there with friends, complete with balloons and a small banner hanging in the middle of the room.
Time goes by at a more lackadaisical pace in the Canyon, which feels more like a Big Sur campsite than part of a suburb. A stream runs behind Mary’s Market, and just past an elevated platform across the street — tables, chairs, and benches await diners in the spotted sunlight. Families of bears ramble through the narrow streets at any time of day. Neighbors’ tight lawns are adorned with colorful trinkets and statues — one lawn even displays replicas of pods from the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which was filmed in town in 1956. There’s even word on the internet that Jimi Hendrix visited Mary’s Market while he was in Los Angeles.
The Canyon began its development in the early 1900s as an idyllic getaway for those who rode the Red Car line and wanted to escape city life for a couple of days. Carter’s Camp — established in 1908 by Arthur Carter, the son of the town’s founder Nathaniel C. Carter — operated in the area where Mary’s Market stands today. The camp, which attracted Angelenos and San Franciscans alike, featured tent cabins, hiking parties, tennis games, a dance hall, an open-air cafeteria, and a freshwater pool located just feet away from the cottage that now houses Mary’s Market.
In 1922, Mary’s Market opened as Spartan’s Meat and Grocery, serving the Canyon under that name for four decades until Irish-born Mary Perkins bought the business in 1966. Perkins, who was born in County Tipperary, moved to Sierra Madre with her family in 1936. After acquiring the store, she became known to locals as the “Mother of the Canyon” due to her generosity; hippies who made their way through the Canyon and up to the market for food and beer often left without paying a cent. Speaking with a local paper about her dedication to feeding people who had no money to pay, Perkins said: “That’s what you’re supposed to do. When people are hungry, you’re supposed to feed them. Even if they can’t pay.” Like the familiar faces working at many community hubs, Perkins developed connections with her patronage, asking them how their families were doing when they stopped by for a bite.
Perkins retired in 1992, making the announcement on a homemade sign she hung on the door of the market. The market closed its doors for two years until local Sierra Madre resident John Sanford bought it. Under his leadership, children living in Sierra Madre helped out at Mary’s Market, including 10-year-old Erin Hastings, Perkins’ great-granddaughter.
The business has changed hands multiple times throughout the decades, while customers began regularly paying for their meals. Other than some minor interior tweaks, including the addition of a counter and swivel stools courtesy of the film Drowning Mona, which was shot at the market, little has changed in the intervening century. Mary’s current co-owners, Morrison and Jenny Kay, bought the market in 2017 after being longtime employees. They say that the best part about working there is being a part of the Canyon, which they agree is “magical.”
“Some of our customers feel like family to us after all these years,” says Morrison.
Mary’s Market is open from Tuesday through Sunday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.