I love Red Robin. My family says I have been going there ever since I was a little kid. Towers of onion rings, more varieties of burgers than ever seemed possible, and "bottomless" fries were all a part of growing up in the Seattle area around the turn of the millennium, the memories dwarfed in terms of a "good time" only by Thunderbirds games and the occasional earthquake. You might say I'm a little nostalgic.
So you can imagine how I felt when I learned that the original Red Robin on the corner of Eastlake Avenue and Fuhrman Avenue E. at the south end of the University Bridge would be shutting down permanently on March 21. The restaurant is a converted tavern, General Manager Jessi Klein said, and as such the layout isn't designed to handle the number of customers it receives. The kitchen is cramped, Klein said, and the walk-in freezer is in the basement instead of right next to the cooking line. Anyone who's ever parked in its ski slope of a parking lot has wished their car had support struts. The renovations necessary to improve the facility were prohibitively expensive, so Red Robin corporate decided to close it down.
I don't go to Red Robin much anymore. What can I say, I've grown up a bit. Still, I was shocked. How could a national chain of restaurants with humble beginnings as a U-District tavern let go of its roots? As soon as I heard the news, I vowed that I would have one last hamburger at the historic establishment before it went away forever.
I went there last Friday evening (March 5) with my wife and a friend only to discover that we weren't the only people with that idea. The narrow corridor between the front door and the restaurant was lined on both sides with people standing shoulder-to-shoulder waiting for a table.
The line spilled out onto the sidewalk and into the parking lot, too. We shouldered our way through the crowd to the hostess only to discover that the wait for a group of three was over an hour. We weren't willing to wait that long but were still in the mood for burgers, so we got back in the car and drove to another Red Robin.
Still, I wasn't satisfied with just any Red Robin burger. I wanted something with a bit of authentic history to it, so I came back the next day around lunch. It was much calmer, even if it was still busier than normal.
According to company's Web site, the Red Robin on Eastlake and Fuhrman started its life in the 1940s as Sam's Tavern. Eventually, the name was changed to Sam's Red Robin. It wasn't so much a restaurant in those days as it was a bar where you could get "jumbo beers, cellophane-wrapped sandwiches and popcorn." It was a place for college students to hang out and drink, not exactly the kind of place where you would bring your kid on their birthday for free ice cream and a non-copyrighted birthday song performed by the entire serving staff.
Gerry Kingen bought it in 1969, and dropped the "Sam's" from the name, but it remained a bar. It wasn't until 1973 that Red Robin became something resembling the restaurant we know today when they added several of their famous gourmet burgers to the menu, such as the Royal Red Robin topped with a fried egg. In 1979, the first Red Robin franchise was opened in Yakima, and from there the chain spread around Washington, the Northwest, and then all of North America.
As I sat sipping on a Diet Coke and munching on a Banzai Burger (a sandwich slathered in teriyaki sauce and topped with a pineapple slice; as a kid, it was my favorite at Red Robin) I thought about how different the place was from every other Red Robin I've ever been to.
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