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 voice-over 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 the 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 cafe; 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, folk singer 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.
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, 5 miles from the original site.