Exploring the Eastside is an occasional series spotlighting the Eastside's special places. If you've got a suggestion, send it to east@seattletimes...
Exploring the Eastside is an occasional series spotlighting the Eastside’s special places. If you’ve got a suggestion, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at 425-453-2130.
A crossword puzzle in front of him, a mug of beer at his side, Paul Beighle took a long, slow look around the Roanoke Inn.
Same shade of forest-green walls. Same ocean scenes in thin wood frames. Same spread of beer memorabilia — hanging on hooks from the ceiling, sitting on mantle tops, below the line of liquor, above the bar of nuts, beside the television.
“The light bulbs may be dimmer,” said Beighle, a customer for the past 26 years. “That’s about it.”
The Roanoke has stood in the same wooded spot since 1914, a Mercer Island landmark on a quiet road that winds near the water. It looks out on the neighborhood from behind a white picket fence, welcoming customers with an awning that guides them up the stairs to the door.
In its lifetime, the Roanoke has seen Mercer Island change from a farming community to a tourist attraction to a spot on the suburban map. It has seen the ferry system give way to the East Channel Bridge; the city of Mercer Island merge with the town of Mercer Island; the building of the island’s first high school, known now as one of the best in the state.
Through it all, the Roanoke has remained a neighborhood hub, home to high-school reunions and Irish wakes, ladies’ lunches and boys’ nights out. The regulars range in age from 21 to 95, depending on the time of day. And they come from all corners of the Puget Sound community, from construction sites to college campuses to Seattle’s City Hall. Jaguars and pickups share the small parking lot.
About the Roanoke Inn
Location: The Roanoke Inn is at 1825 72nd Ave. S.E., Mercer Island. More information: www.roanokeinn.com
What to see: Beer memorabilia.
Specialties: 11 beers on tap. The Roanoke Burger, aka Triple Bypass, which is two pieces of meat, ham and cheese. Nut bar with cashews, mixed nuts and pistachios.
What to know: There is outdoor seating on the patio and space to play croquet in the back in the summer. The fireplace is lit in the winter.
There is respect for one thing: tradition. And the owner of the Roanoke, Dorothy Reeck, has tried her best to keep it. When the place needs a painting, Reeck pores over shades of forest green, looking for the perfect match. When the phone needs replacing, she finds one with an old-time ringer, so the regulars do not feel jarred.
When the ocean scenes faded nearly to black, Reeck hired a Hollywood set designer to restore them — brightening up the clouds a bit, lightening the look of the waves.
So when older customers come in, after an absence of decades, it is tough to find a thing that seems changed. Reeck said it is the kind of place that comforts, making so much work worthwhile.
She told the story of a 92-year-old man whose family brought him to the Roanoke for his birthday celebration. His words to her: I’m so glad they brought me here instead of the Space Needle.
“Just thinking about it puts a big smile on my face,” she said.
The Roanoke pulled through a tough period in the late 1990s, when it faced a lawsuit from a neighbor who claimed the tavern did not belong in a residential neighborhood because it was too noisy and caused too much traffic.
Supporters of the Roanoke mobilized, creating the Mercer Island Historic Preservation Society. And in early 2000, a King County Superior Court judge dismissed the suit. While city zoning rules now don’t allow taverns in such areas, the Roanoke — built before the city incorporated — has been “grandfathered” into the law.
Built in 1914 as a chicken-dinner inn, the Roanoke made its name as a roadhouse during Prohibition, with rumors of dancing girls and drink in the basement. It made the shift to a tavern years later, then settled into its role as the neighborhood dive bar.
And the Roanoke has refused to leave that role, even as the island has changed around it, becoming more upscale by the year. There are requests for champagne and fresh-ground pepper, single-malt scotches and lists of cognacs. The wait staff has a smile and a polite word at the ready, but not much more than that.
Brianna Beck, a waitress, recalled the time a couple came into the Roanoke in formal dress, expecting something a bit different. But they got a welcome all the same, she said, and now the man and wife are regulars, even introducing their friends to the place.
“I think they passed along the word to leave the evening wear at home,” she said.
Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or email@example.com