This is the story behind the most legendary 49ers bar in America

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Tim Harrison takes the kind of deep breath you take when you’re getting ready to tell a story that starts in 1972.

“I was looking for an address for my girlfriend at the time and I’d stopped at this gas station across the street to call her on a payphone and get directions,” he says, sitting 150 feet away from the exact gas station he’s describing. “And when I was on the phone, I saw a ‘For Lease’ sign on this building across the street. So I jotted down the number.”

The building in question was a vacant 7-Eleven in Emerald Hills, a tiny, oak-studded hill ‘hood near Redwood City with just under 500 families in the early ’70s.

“These were all deli cases,” Harrison says, pointing to what are now a half dozen booths that line the far wall of Canyon Inn. “I had a lot of friends helping me at the time and we built all these ourselves. It took about a year to open up.”

And on June 1, 1973, Canyon Inn opened for business on — where else — Canyon Road.

The booths at Canyon Inn, which were hand built by Tim Harrison and his friends.

Blair Heagerty / SFGate

You’d be hard pressed to find a Super Bowl champion 49er who hasn’t had a burger and a beer at Canyon Inn.

There are three reasons for that.

First, the Canyon Inn is located less than a mile and a half from Red Morton Community Park, which served as the San Francisco 49ers’ practice facility from 1956-88.

Second, from 1981 to 1988, Harrison made food at Canyon Inn free for every member of the 49ers organization for the entire week following a win. (In the three years prior to Harrison’s promotion, the Niners had won a grand total of 10 games. From 1981-88, the 49ers won 81 games and two Super Bowls.)

And third, the burgers and beer are really good.

“The beginning of the ’81 season, I wanted to have a rally for the team so I met with John McVay,” Harrison says, referring to the Niners’ former director of football operations and current grandfather of Rams head coach Sean McVay. “He was sort of coming in here for lunch and I go, ‘You know, I’d like to have a rally for these guys.’ He says to me, ‘That sounds like a good idea, you need to talk to (49ers legend and former training camp director) R.C. Owens.’

“So we met for lunch, R.C. and I, and we’re talking and he goes, ‘You know, the only way you’re going to get these guys in here is if you give something away.'”

Not long after that conversation, Harrison had golden-hued cards printed for the entire organization that had “Canyon Inn / 49ers / Winning Team” printed on them, along with each cardholder’s name and the “free food the entire week after every win” deal.

Harrison had golden-hued cards printed for the entire organization that had "Canyon Inn / 49ers / Winning Team" printed on them, along with each cardholder's name.

Blair Heagerty / SFGate

Harrison circled September 13 on his 1981 calendar — the first 49ers home game.

“That Sunday, I had tickets to the A’s,” Harrison said. “The A’s had to win to have a shot at the playoffs and they lost. And as I was leaving I put on the 49ers game and the 49ers beat the Bears with, like, a last-second field goal and they won. And I told my friend, ‘I wonder if they’re going to be in tomorrow?'”

They were most certainly in tomorrow: A line of players, trainers, equipment managers, secretaries, and operations staff were lined up waiting outside before Harrison opened the doors for business.

They’d show up for lunch almost every day of the week from then on out.

“I didn’t realize there was, like, a hundred staff to every 50 players. They come out of the woodwork, you know, for free food,” Harrison says. “And that year they went 16-3 and won the Super Bowl.”

“We gave a lot of food away. Anywhere from $10,000-$15,000 worth in year one.”

That they gave away that many burgers is eye-opening — especially considering Harrison says Canyon Inn was pulling in $80 a day in 1973. The gambit paid off: years later, Harrison says, business still booms due to the creative stunt.

“We got so many loyal customers who were coming here all the time during that period,” Harrison says. “And they just kept coming.”

“Joe (Montana) lived up the hill. Bill Walsh lived up the hill. They all lived in the area,” Harrison says. “Jerry Rice, he didn’t come along until ’85, but when he did, he was my neighbor, nearby Sequoia hospital.”

The promotion was noteworthy, but the patrons were even moreso.

“Joe (Montana) lived up the hill. Bill Walsh lived up the hill. They all lived in the area,” Harrison says. “Jerry Rice, he didn’t come along until ’85, but when he did, he was my neighbor, nearby Sequoia hospital.”

“Roger Craig still comes by.”

There isn’t a single player on the ’81-’82 Niners that Harrison doesn’t mention during an hour-long interview. Charle Young had a chili named after him. Randy Cross is pictured on one wall. A framed thank you letter from his wife is on another. Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds has a burger named after him (as does Redwood City native and Patriots Super Bowl champ Julian Edelman, who also, of course, has been by Canyon Inn). There are framed funeral programs to Bill Walsh and Dwight Clark’s memorials, both of which Harrison received invites to, and attended alongside the likes of Roger Goodell and Jed York.

“This is Ronnie Lott in his rookie year,” Harrison says, pointing to a photo of the Pro Football Hall of Famer. “His real number was 42, but they didn’t have it at that time, so he’s wearing 24. There’s not many pictures of that where he’s wearing number 24.”

Virtually (maybe not even virtually, maybe actually) all of the names above have something they’ve signed hanging on the very crowded walls of Canyon Inn.

It’s a museum as much as it is a restaurant and bar.

There’s a piece of the astroturf from the 49ers old field at Red Morton Community Park. There’s a copy of the San Francisco Examiner’s front page from the day after Dwight Clark made “The Catch” in San Francisco’s dramatic 28-27 win over Dallas in the NFC Championship Game — and of course was signed by Clark the day after he made it. There’s a photo of Montana in a “Forty F***in’ Niners” shirt with some choice Duct tape on the glass, because this is a family establishment, after all. There’s more than one framed letter from the typewriter of famed San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. There’s a framed shirt signed by Dwight Clark that reads “FORTY NINERS” and was accidentally washed (more than once) by Tim’s wife Stephanie. (Really though, there’s a lot of incredible stuff, check out the slideshow up top for a look at a bunch of it.)

The old “49ers Media & Conference Room” sign that used to reside at Red Morton for Tuesday press conferences (which Harrison catered)? It’s in Canyon Inn’s back patio beer garden.

Canyon Inn, Redwood City

Blair Heagerty / SFGate

Harrison, though, is as humble as he was the day he opened the joint.

He won’t talk about legacies or legendary 49ers bar statuses.

“We were just kind of a little blip on the screen,” he says. “But it happened at a really neat time. We won five Super Bowls during that time. It’s hard to describe something when you’re in it. You know what I mean? Maybe when I’m done doing this, I’ll look back.”

I ask Harrison, who bought the Canyon Inn’s building in 1983, if he’s close to being done doing this.

He shakes his head.

“As long as everything holds out, I’ll be here.”

Grant Marek is SFGATE’s Editorial Director. Email: | Twitter: @grant_marek