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Published in The Seattle Times online on Nov. 10, 2022
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on Nov. 13, 2022
Legendary Red Robin chain arose from a tiny site near a bridge
By Clay Eals
It’s a behemoth restaurant chain with 546 outlets in 44 states and British Columbia, known for lighthearted TV commercials that end with a resonant voiceover chorus of “Yummm!”
However, the enterprise reportedly took root in 1916 as a tiny grocery perched above Portage Bay just a stone’s toss from the south end of University Bridge. By 1926, it was an eatery. Seattle Times classified ads reflect a tenuous tenure:
- July 1, 1926: “HAMBURGER, waffles: busy corner; rent $30.”
- March 31, 1929: “FOR SALE — Cheap, lunchroom; rent $30 per month. Owner leaving town. Come to see it Monday if you want a bargain.”
- Jan. 7, 1930: “PARTNER — Established café; small investment; new taxi stand; must stay open nights. Too long hours for one.”
Ads and Polk directory listings reference a succession of 12 proprietors and a bevy of business names for the property at 3272 Furhman Ave. E. It was the Zimmerman Cafe, the Bridge Cafe, Bee’s Corner Cafe, Ann’s Corner Cafe and, starting in 1942, the Red Robin Tavern. That name stuck.
Legend has it that in the 1940s the watering hole’s avian appellation originated from tavern-keeper Samuel Caston, whose barbershop quartet warbled the 1926 hit “When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along)” and who added “Sam’s” to the name for good measure. But Polk listings indicate that Caston assumed ownership later, in 1953. No matter. Legends can befit a storied sudshouse.
By the late 1960s, the Robin, as it was known, was a Bohemian hangout, says Paul Gillingham, then a University of Washington philosophy and history student, folksinger and motorcyclist. “Strictly a tavern,” offering popcorn and “horrible” Polish sausages as the only food, the 1,500-square-foot pub bulged with students, Gillingham says. Some “would take bets on who would jump off the bridge.”
One morning in 1969, Gillingham vroomed by and photographed the dilapidated saloon, its awning ragged and sagging. That year, Caston sold the Robin to fledgling Seattle restaurateur Gerry Kingen, triggering a final-night, legendarily rowdy free-for-all.
Kingen expanded the Robin, adding a huge deck, and dropped “Sam’s” from its name. Later, he transformed it into a hamburger “emporium” and opened namesakes citywide. Starting in 1985, the chain went to outside interests that eventually grew Red Robin into a national presence. The initial eatery closed in 2010 and was razed in 2014, yielding to a three-floor retail-residential complex dubbed the Robin’s Nest.
Today you can find a Red Robin in 31 Washington cities. Perhaps fittingly, if sadly, only one remains in Seattle, at Northgate, five miles from the original site.
Special thanks to Ron Edge and Joe Bopp for their help with this installment!
To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photos, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column.
Below is a collage of 8 images of the Red Robin site from 2007 to 2019, plus 30 historical clips from The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) and Washington Digital Newspapers, that were helpful in the preparation of this column.