‘It just irritates me’: The Siren Canteen, a shuttered Bay Area gem in Stinson Beach, fends off invaders from Instagram

The Siren Canteen, formerly Surfer's Grill, opened in 2014. 

The Siren Canteen, formerly Surfer's Grill, opened in 2014. 

Silas Valentino/SFGATE

Prior to closing in 2019 for a multiyear renovation project, the Siren Canteen in the North Bay was establishing itself as a social hub for Stinson Beach. 

The beachside grill, built onto the sand and below a lifeguard station, was starting to gain recognition for its menu (burgers, Mexican food, drinks) and unbeatable coastal ambiance, which attracted a variety of visitors to the coastal Marin hamlet. 

“It was lively. The best social place in the area,” said Mark Nunez, who works at the Stinson Beach post office and became a regular at the Siren. “I’d talk to people from both out and in town.”

The Siren Canteen is under the shadow of the Stinson Beach Lifeguard Station.

The Siren Canteen is under the shadow of the Stinson Beach Lifeguard Station.

Silas Valentino/SFGATE

Today, three years into its dormancy, the self-described “only beach-side eatery in Marin County” is vulnerable to out-of-towners who discover that it’s inactive. Influencers on Instagram share posts that attract photographers and trespassers who perpetuate further infringement on the al fresco bistro. 

Ultimately, the building is scheduled for demolition, and some wear and tear to the Siren might appear frivolous, but the disrespect to the treasured eatery remains. It’s impacting the Siren’s owners and small beach town community who’ve grown to champion the canteen. 

Iman Bengana co-runs the Siren with her mother Mary Margaret Stewart and keeps her eye on Instagram posts related to Stinson Beach so she can educate encroachers on the Siren’s status. 

“It just irritates me,” she told SFGATE. “I’ve been seeing all these posts about an ‘abandoned cafe.’ It’s not an ‘abandoned cafe’ — it’s my baby, it’s my child. It’s in transition and is coming back.” 

The Siren Canteen offers beachgoers al fresco dining.

The Siren Canteen offers beachgoers al fresco dining.

Silas Valentino/SFGATE

Bengana said she’s seen at least three posts in the past month and commented on each of them to set the record straight about the business. 

She’s not alone. In the comments for one post, the profile for the Friends Fort Mason bookstore wrote: “You went in with no regard. Please don’t encourage people to trespass.”

After his shift at the post office, Nunez will sometimes take a bottle of wine and enjoy the sunset at the Siren. He said he’s constantly picking up trash that was left behind and shooing away urinators who attempt to foul the premise. Although he’s become somewhat of a steward of the Siren, Nunez said he himself has been “bullied out” before by wedding photographers who come to capture couples in the twilight. 

Windows inside the Siren Canteen frame the Pacific Ocean.

Windows inside the Siren Canteen frame the Pacific Ocean.

Silas Valentino/SFGATE

During a recent Friday afternoon, the Siren was still as beachgoers relaxed nearby. Sand blew onto the wooden deck while a full case of discarded Modelo beer cans was splattered and crushed across the floor. Packets of ketchup from another beach grill were left behind. Where the rusted light fixture hung from the ceiling, a bird had made a nest, but it has since deserted.

The canteen is situated within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which has created a unique business environment. During the government shutdown in early 2019, Stewart wrote personal checks to cover federal workers and maintain trash and restrooms so that the canteen could remain accessible. In response, the Stinson Beach community rallied behind the Siren to raise money to keep the beach open for several more weekends. 

Later that year, the Siren closed for a rehabilitation project so that the National Park Service could upgrade the aging facility. Bengana said their grill had started to fail after a busy 2019 summer season, and the kitchen required a full revamp. 

The Siren went on sabbatical with the intention of reopening a few years down the line with a brand-new facility. Nunez said he’s seen blueprint plans for the new Siren, and its expected date of return is 2026.

The staff of the Siren Canteen on its opening day in 2014. From left to right: Gabe Baeza, Mary Margaret Stewart, Iman Bengana and James Martone.

The staff of the Siren Canteen on its opening day in 2014. From left to right: Gabe Baeza, Mary Margaret Stewart, Iman Bengana and James Martone.

Courtesy of Iman Bengana

Bengana returns sometimes to pick up equipment and sometimes finds messages written in the dust from fans who write how they miss the Siren. “It’s not just a restaurant; it’s a community,” she said. 

The kissed lips of a Siren Canteen admirer left by the window. 

The kissed lips of a Siren Canteen admirer left by the window. 

Silas Valentino/SFGATE

Since the Siren temporarily closed, Bengana and Stewart opened Millie’s Crepe et Creme over the hill at the Mill Valley Lumber Yard. They’ve secured a fresh 10-year lease from the National Park Service to continue operating the Siren once the new building is ready. 

In the meantime, a combination of trespassers and guardians will anticipate its reopening. 

“Whenever you have a really good scene, it doesn’t last,” Nunez said. “People are waiting for the Siren to come back.”