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The old Red Robin and the young millennials

The Red Robin sign at the original restaurant. Credit: Jon Sayer/Crosscut

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.

The walls of most Red Robins are crowded with posters and artwork of old-fashioned Americana, like movie posters and iconic photographs. To me, the decoration’s purpose is to evoke a feeling of nostalgia in a setting that is inherently unnostalgic, like a mall or Tukwilla.

But this old building doesn’t need any help creating nostalgia; it exudes it. The old wooden walls are mostly bare, the posters few. The floor is visibly worn down. The decor is defined by ancient red-and-yellow lamp shades emblazoned with “Red Robin” on the sides and the massive window, the University of Washington framed by water and sky beyond. It feels homey, relaxing, like a decades-old neighborhood restaurant should.

It feels so homey that the colorful menus, table-top burger advertisements, branded seasoning salt shakers and plastic kid’s cups feel completely out of place. These things fit in the noisy chain restaurants you find in Northgate Mall or Bellingham’s Bellis Fair, but here they stick out like flashing lights.

As I finished my Banzai Burger I started on the steak fries, and I realized something: I’d eaten these fries before. Heck, I’d eaten that burger before, too. I will eat them again, too. They were the same as I’d get at any of the 36 Red Robins around Washington or the hundreds around North America. The table in front of me and the chair I was sitting on were exactly like the ones I’d grown up with in the Red Robin in Issaquah or Factoria Mall, or the ones I sat at when my family ate at the Red Robin just blocks away from Disneyland.

The only difference between this Red Robin and the countless others is that the nostalgia isn’t constructed, but inherent to it as the original, the oldest, the first one.

Let me see if I can put this another way. Priscilla Schmidt of Renton was one of the people willing to wait in the hour-long line my friends and I wussed out on last Friday night. She’s an employee of that other Seattle institution that discovered the power of the franchise system and spread like wildfire: Starbucks. The impending closure of this flagship restaurant made her wonder what it would be like if the original Starbucks near Pike Place Market were to close down.

“I’d be upset,” she said. “I mean, that’s where it all started. It’s like shoving off your history.”

It’s a discomforting thought. We like our local history here in Seattle as much as we like recycling and driving hybrids. But even if the first Starbucks were to close down, what would we be losing? Just as Red Robin didn’t start as a family restaurant, Starbucks didn’t start as a place to sit with your friends in comfy chairs and drink coffee. They sold beans, not beverages. The “third place” Starbucks of today is not the bean roaster of 1971, and losing the Pike Place Starbucks would not be like losing a pristine piece of history.

Likewise, whatever the UW students who frequented Sam’s Tavern or the Red Robin of the 1970s may have experienced is a thing of the past. Seattle isn’t losing something irreplaceable: it was already gone. This restaurant already shoved off its history. What remained was a chain restaurant wrapped in the nostalgia of a bygone past.

As I left the original Red Robin that lunch hour, I noticed there was a piece of paper taped to the door announcing the restaurant’s impending closure. Most prominent on the sheet was a quote attributed to Dr. Seuss:

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”

It’s a good eulogy for a tavern turned family restaurant. The generations that remember Sam’s Red Robin as it was still will. I’ll still remember the simple pleasure of downing a tower of onion rings with my siblings in a family restaurant with crayons and kid’s menus. The wooden walls may be gone, but the memories remain.

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