Seattle Now & Then: Original Red Robin, 1969

(Click and click again to enlarge photos)

THEN1: This north-facing view from 1969 by Paul Gillingham, today a retired trial lawyer and Ravenna resident, shows Sam’s Red Robin Tavern at 3272 Fuhrman Ave. E. near the south end of University Bridge. Heidelberg and Budweiser boxes and a beer keg lie next to a now-rare telephone booth. Seattle Times restaurant columnist John Hinterberger cracked, “In the old Robin, if they’d passed a pool cue around, someone would have smoked it.” (Paul Gillingham, courtesy Ron Edge)
THEN2: In a 1937 view looking northeast, the building that became the Red Robin Tavern five years later operates as all-night Bee’s Corner Cafe, advertising Pabst Blue Ribbon and (painted out) Heidelberg beer. (Puget Sound Branch, Washington State Archives)
THEN3: In this northeast-facing view, the Red Robin Tavern stands in April 1970 after Gerry Kingen purchased and expanded it, posting a cartoon logo near the door. Kingen converted it to what he termed an “emporium” for dozens of hamburger styles. “I basically created a grownup’s McDonalds,” he recalled in a 2010 Seattle Times interview. (Puget Sound Branch, Washington State Archives)
NOW: Two men carry away a food order from the three-floor Robin’s Nest retail-residential complex on the initial Red Robin site, in a wider north-facing view that takes in part of the mid-1960s Interstate 5 Ship Canal Bridge to the west (left). The building houses 61 apartments and a ground-floor pizzeria. A protruding, decorative bird signals the site’s history. (Clay Eals)

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.

Seattle Freeway postcard, mid-1960s, with Red Robin indicated by red circle.

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.

A collage of eight Google Maps images of the Red Robin site from 2007 to 2019.
July 1, 1926, Seattle Times, p34.
March 31, 1929, Seattle Times, p51.
Jan. 7, 1930, Seattle Times, p24.
Sept. 1, 1934, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p22.
Oct. 31, 1933, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p4.
July 21, 1942, Seattle Times, p21.
June 3, 1942, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p23.
Feb. 18, 1943, Seattle Times, p34.
Dec. 7, 1962, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p1.
Feb. 28, 1965, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p23.
March 25, 1967, Seattle Times, p2.
March 27, 1970, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p14.
April 12, 1970, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p40.
May 23, 1970, Seattle Times, p1, John Hinterberger.
May 25, 1970, Seattle Times, p24.
June 12, 1974, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p4.
Aug. 19, 1977, Seattle Times, p18.
Jan. 5, 1978, Seattle Times, p19.
Sept. 10, 1978, Seattle Times, p166.
Dec. 27, 1978, Seattle Times, p84.
Oct. 5, 1979, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p60.
Dec. 15, 1979, Seattle Times, p11.
Feb. 3, 1980, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p33.
June 22, 1980, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p28.
Feb. 1, 1981, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p75.
June 23, 1985, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p130.
May 11, 1986, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p89.
Aug. 8, 1991, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p25.
Jan. 10, 1982, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p64.
March 3, 2010, Seattle Times blog.

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