Bars where Pete has had a Drink (5,772 bars; 1,754 bars in Seattle) - Click titles below for Lists:

Bars where Pete has had a drink

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

#5006 - Lena's Lounge, East Liverpool, OH - 2/13/2023

Lena's Lounge, East Liverpool, OH

I like 86 Lists in bars. The list in Lena's Place in East Liverpool, is the first one I've seen that is next to a display of items -- mostly beer bottles -- memorializing deceased customers. It's a fairly lengthy list, with an unusual amount of full proper names, although it does also include Doug Tooth Man, Cheets/Chicago, Quiet, Peanut, and Irish. 

 East Liverpool is a small town (about 10,000 residents) just across the Ohio River from West Virginia, a couple miles east of Pennsylvania. The town's population peaked in 1970, on the strength of its pottery industry: 

 'The potteries of East Liverpool became the national center of ceramic toilet and table wares, with 85 firms operating at one time or another making two-thirds of the national output from 1880 to 1950. East Liverpool became known as "The Crockery City. Potters from Staffordshire, England, began pouring into East Liverpool, attracted by higher wages and the prospect of land ownership. By 1879, there were 24 potteries in East Liverpool, nearly all operated by English immigrants. As late as 1900, East Liverpool remained "essentially a transplanted potting town of Englishmen".' (wikipedia)

Lena's Lounge, East Liverpool, PA
The fairly large space that is now Lena's was "Scotty's Place" for several decades. A few years ago it was purchased by Bob Berdine for his daughter Lena. Bob and his wife Joyce ran "Berdines Corner Tavern" in town for many years. Bob and Joyce were married in 1962 and Joyce just passed away Feb 5th. Bob has some health challenges of his own, and is looking to sell Lena's. 

 The bar looks much as it did as Scotty's, with a long, narrow bar area alongside a large open room that once regularly hosted live bands. It is a rare bar in town that still has last call at 1:45am, so it gets a lot of its customers late in the evening, from the other bars that close at 10 or 11. I wish I could you how old the place is. 

The back bar runs almost the entire length of the long barroom, and appears to have an early 20th century art deco type of design. As with many of the bars I visit in mid-day, it made me wonder what it was like on busy Friday or Saturday night.

639 St Clair Ave, East Liverpool, OH 43920
Previous bars in this location: Scotty's Place
Web site: facebook 

Sunday, February 12, 2023

#5001 - Le Mardi Gras, Pittsburgh, PA - 2/10/2023

Joe Costanza, legendary former owner
Le Mardi Gras, Pittsburgh, PA

Le Mardi Gras is a smoky, anachronistic, classic dive that seems to divulge a faded, classy past. Upon entering for the first time it immediately feels comfortable, evoking a history of fond memories and animated conversations, and surely just as many that have been blacked out of memory.

This location has been around only since 2002, but it brought the murals and, at least it seems, the vibe, from the old location a couple blocks away and around the corner. The original opened in 1954 at 742 Bellefonte Street (that building has long since been razed), and in the early years catered to the city's elites. The bar history on the web site mentions members of  Duquesne Country Club, Rolling Rock Country Club, Ligonier Country Club, Sewickley Country Club, and Fox Chapel Country Club; an article on the wall notes that one would not be served without a jacket and tie. Later the bar was known for its mix of classes and people, professors chatting with welfare recipients, city officials with some of the town's most unusual characters, etc.

Le Mardi Gras, Pittsburgh, PA
The bar history also lists visits from various celebrities including Rocky Marciano, Harvey Kietel, Sammy Koufax, Sam McDowell, Billy Conn, Steven Carlson, Alice Cooper, George Clooney, Russell Crowe, John Kerry, and Ted Danson. Then there were the ink-stained wretches from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette and Pittsburgh Press, as well as author Richard Florida, and all the professors from various local universities.

Probably the most prominent physical features are the New Orleans Mardi Gras themed, smoke drenched murals from the original place. These were done some 60-some years ago by Tom Kouris, who taught at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh for many years and is said to have been another regular of the bar. Several of the featured characters were based on Pittsburgh personalities, and modeled by other Mardi Gras patrons. 

Le Mardi Gras, Pittsburgh, PA

Another character, long-time owner Joe Costanza, hangs beside the bar, in a lighted portrait and gilt frame. "Papa Joe" ran the place during most of those halcyon years, dispensing advice along with strong drinks, and to many across the city known as simply "the greatest bartender in the world." There's no doubting that he was a remarkable character. Among the other memories, another framed article on the bar walls from a 1978 Pittsburgher Magazine includes these anecdotes:

  • 'People like Bud the Bandit, Eata, Frank the Mexican, Clyde, P.L., Antonia, the Cagneys, Dirty Dan, Red, Officer McGovernor, Darce and The Lion. Joe boasts "we get them all -- judges, writers, cops, thieves, politicians, you name it."'
  • "Joe remains the dominant force behind the saloon's popularity. He's the reason dozens of folks will stand butt-to-butt on a Friday or Saturday night, bellowing over the blare of that crummy music, squinting through the dim, smoke-filled air, squeezed into a room that would comfortably accommodate one third their number."
  • 'Joe seems happiest when he's dealing. For a dollar, he'll pour you a very heavy shot. But for down-and-outers, he's been know to barter a handful of change for some odd combinations of scotch, gin, wine and 7-ounce beers. He has his own currency too, as drinks are purchased in hogs and bits -- half-a-hog, six bits, a hog-and-a-quarter and so on. And his concoctions he calls spindoolies.'

Trista with bar manager Scotty
Le Mardi Gras, Pittsburgh, PA

When Joe died in 1993, his son Rich took over the place and has run it since. Today Le Mardi Gras is known for having a very different personality than its Shadyside neighbors, for its friendly bartenders, it's cocktails made with fresh squeezed juices, and the incomparably heavy pour of its drinks (e.g. its "shots" are basically rocks glasses filled to the brim). We enjoyed chatting with bartender, bar manager, and bar fan Scotty, who described bits of history and about restoring the murals and decor. Scotty is currently working on a more comprehensive history for the web page (which could probably use the upgrade -- a glance at their page source reveals a history of porn links).

Le Mardi Gras, Pittsburgh, PA
The bar has been described as "Pittsburgh's first and last cocktail bar." The former may well be true, and although I haven't yet verified it with any primary sources, it was saluted as such in an official commendation from the Pittsburgh City Council. The "last" term is said to refer to some special liquor license that has been grandfathered in, though current state liquor license data doesn't seem to contain any uncommon license today. Regardless of the license history, many of its patrons will tell you it's the only REAL cocktail bar in town -- a description that seems to draw more from its nod to tradition and its mix of people than it does to anything in the drinks.

In any case, and despite the cigarette smoke, this is the sort of old school bar with personality that I could easily see becoming our regular place if it were just a little closer to us. I expect we will often return when in the area.


731 Copeland St, Pittsburgh, PA 15232 - (412) 683-0912
Est. 2002 in current location; 1954 original location
Web site: 
Reviews: pghcitypaperyelp - thrillest

Saturday, February 11, 2023

#5000 - The Oak Room, Pittsburgh, PA - 2/10/2023

Mansions on 5th Hotel, Pittsburgh, PA

In the year of 1900, a time when Pittsburgh produced half the steel in the U.S. and was the country's 8th largest city, prominent attorney Willis Fisher McCook commissioned a new house to be built on "Millionaire's Row," along 5th Avenue in the city. This stretch housed the families of Andrew Mellon, Andrew Carnegie, H.J. Heinz, George Westinghouse and Henry Clay Frick. McCook was counsel for Frick, and eventually served as the president of Pittsburgh Steel Co.

The McCook family lost the house during the Great Depression, and it was purchased in a sheriff's sale by Emil Bonita. To help pay for upkeep and taxes, the Bonita family rented rooms to Carnegie-Mellon University arts students, said to include Andy Warhol, George Peppard, Shirley Jones, and Albert Brooks.

Mansions on 5th Hotel, Pittsburgh, PA

The house was later sold to preservationists Richard Pearson and Mary Del Brady, who commenced restoration work of the mansion as well as adjacent property in 2010. The two were opened as a boutique hotel in March 2011, complete with the Oak Room Pub. The building is also a popular space for weddings and other special events. (Source = printed materials from the business)

On February 10, 2023, the Oak Room was the setting for a little milestone of my own. I've been counting bars that I've had a drink in since early 2006, and on this day of my project, in the capable hands of bartender Lisa, my nutty Manhattan made this this the 5,000th different bar in which I've had a drink.

We enjoyed our cocktails and conversation with Lisa, spanning from notes on local bars and liquor law to ghosts said to tread the old mansion (Lisa is unconvinced). Of course we also took in the beautiful oak woodwork, stained glass, and the Elizabethan Revival architecture. Then after this, dinner and bar numbers 5,001, 5,002, and 5,003.

The Oak Room Pub, Mansions of Fifth
Pittsburgh, PA - Feb 10, 2023

Lisa, Oak Room bartender
Helping us celebrate my milestone

Curly, former steward of the Oak Room
(We seem to have been too late to have met this
impressive looking gentleman in the bar)
(Photo from the mansionsonfifth blog)

5105 Fifth Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15232 - (412) 381-5105
Est. 2011 - Building constructed: 1906
Previous bars in this location: None known
Web site: mansionsonfifth - facebook - blog
Reviews: triblive - tripadvisor - yelp - wikipedia - lewisandclark 

Monday, February 06, 2023

#4260 - Timber Inn, Pierce, ID - 6/17/2021

Timber Inn, Pierce, ID

The community of Pierce, Idaho began with the discovery of Gold on Orofino Creek by Elias D. Pierce and Wilbur F. Bassett in 1860. The party was led there by was by Jane, the daughter of Chief Timothy. The discovery was made on part of 7.5 million acres of land ceded to the Nez Perce tribe at the Walla Walla Council in 1855, and confirmed by treaty in 1859. Of course the promises of the treaty were systematically violated once gold was discovered in the area, with subsequent attempts to eject natives from the area leading to the Nez Perce War in 1877.

Soon after the gold strike, "Pierce was the first county seat for Shoshone County, which was established in January 1861 in Washington Territory and for most of its first year included most of present-day Idaho and Wyoming. The Pierce Courthouse, constructed in 1862, is Idaho's oldest public building. Idaho Territory was established in 1863, and the county seat moved north to the Silver Valley in Murray in 1884 (and to Wallace in 1898)."  (wikipedia)

The swarm of gold seekers soon moved on. "The resulting rush, estimated at as many as 6,000 men, among them many Chinese, was reduced years later by another strike elsewhere." But three decades later another resource would sustain the community. 'A father and son, C.D. and Nat Brown, came West in the 1890’s seeking new areas of timber and found the “green gold” they sought in the largest stand of white pine and other coniferous types in north Idaho’s Clearwater and Benewah counties and nearby hills. Word spread to their former workers in the timber depleted Great Lakes region, and many came out to establish homesteads which opened the land for lumbermen. In 1925 a railroad was built to facilitate hauling the harvest to mills, large and small, nearby.' (piercelibrary

Today the small city of about 500 people caters to outdoorsmen, hikers, hunters, and snowmobilers. And if you'd like either a night's stay or just a beer and meal in a setting that preserves a bit of the feel of those early days, you will want to make your way to the Timber Inn. I do not know how long the inn has been formally called "Timber Inn" or exactly how long it has included a bar, but the inn is said to have been established during the prohibition era, in 1926. 

Timber Inn, Pierce, ID

For the last 32 years before this visit, the inn has been run by Robby Harrel, whom I was lucky enough to chat with for a bit, and who let me check out the rooms upstairs. There are five rooms for rent, with a kitchen, laundry and sitting room available to all guests. The rooms tend to be decorated in period fashion, while the bar downstairs has a more eclectic collection of artifacts acquired by Robby over the years. The menu includes standard diner choices, along with steaks and chicken gizzards, but is best known for the 3/4 pound "Timber Burger." I had one of these myself, but like the vast majority of people who order it, I was unable to finish it.

If I am again in this area of northern Idaho I will definitely consider a stay at the inn.

Pierce, Idaho - 1860
(Photo from Wikipedia)

Timber Burger, Timber Inn, Pierce, ID

2 S Main St, Pierce, ID 83546 - (208) 464-2736
Bar Est. ? - Building constructed: 1926
Previous bars in this location: None known 
Web site: - facebook 
Reviews: tripadvisor - yelp - roadtrippers 

Sunday, February 05, 2023

#4678 - Black Bass Hotel, Lumberville, PA - 7/13/2022

Black Bass Hotel Tavern
Lumberville, PA

After a gorgeous drive from the Continental Tavern in Yardley, it might have been disappointing if the Black Bass Hotel Tavern was fairly pedestrian in appearance. But not to worry, as the historical site is currently a stunning setting and at its peak in the late afternoon sun and shadows. The tavern is set in the tiny village of Lumberville, a village in Solebury Township first settled by Revolutionary War veteran Colonel George Wall, and hence first known as "Wall's Landing."

My plan is usually to sit at the bar, but the beauty of the hour and the setting on the Delaware River demanded a patio seat. There I enjoyed some fine small dishes, while the family across from me discoursed in French. It seemed appropriate in this setting, as the weather, the water, the view made me feel this must feel somewhat like sitting on the French Riviera.

Black Bass Hotel Tavern
Lumberville, PA

A snippet of the history from the tavern's own web site: “Built in the 1740s, the Black Bass Hotel served as a haven for travelers, traders, and sportsmen. The famous tavern had many names through the years including Wall’s Tavern, Lumberville Hotel, Temple Bar, The Rising Sun and finally The Black Bass Hotel. As one of the oldest inns in the country, we are proud to be included in the National Register of Historic Places.

The Bass seeps with a rich history. One of the most notable documents that while George Washington is known to have slept in several historic properties throughout the Delaware Valley, he notably did not stay at the Bass. As Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, Washington was turned away by the innkeeper of the Bass who was a Tory and loyal to the British Crown. He made it clear that Washington was not welcome to stay. Shortly thereafter, just 14 miles south, George Washington organized the first move in a surprise attack against the Hessian forces. He and his troops crossed the Delaware River to Trenton, NJ on the morning of December 26, 1776. This proved a decisive victory in the American Revolutionary War that helped turn the tides in American’s favor."

A hotel is said to have first opened here in 1745, as a tavern under the name of the "Temple Bar."

More recently, the site notes:

"In 1833 a fire broke out in the Tavern resulting in extensive damage. Major Anthony Fry, the proprietor at the time, broke open the cellar doors and, at the risk of his own life, carried out a huge quantity of gunpowder that was being stored there. This stopped an inevitable explosion and saved the Bass from total destruction. We thought this feat worthy of naming one of our suites after him!

In the late nineteenth century, the Black Bass fell into decline and passed through several owners until it was purchased in 1949 by Herbert Ward. Herbie, as he was fondly known, rescued the Bass and ran it until just before his death 54 years later. He was passionate about history and was a devoted Anglophile. His expansive collection of British memorabilia, as well as hundreds of antiques and notable artwork, were lovingly restored under the guidance of the Thompson family. Herbie purchased the famed pewter bar in the Tavern at
auction which originally resided in Maxim's of Paris."

When exactly the tavern was first known as the "Black Bass" is not clear to me. In J.H. Battle's History of Bucks County, it is described by as such by the time that W. Horace Fell took ownership in in 1887. Bucks County Magazine cites a January 18, 1837 edition of the Bucks County Intelligencer that includes an advertisement for the Rising Sun Tavern operated by Anthony Ely in Lumberville, likely the same tavern in this tiny town. The same article also notes that it was long known as Lumberville Inn, and that an 1863 ad describes it as the estate of Jesse P. Forker.

In addition to the river view, the hotel includes some beautiful grounds, which make it an attractive selection for wedding ceremonies. And, of course, as with any building of such antiquity and history, it is widely believed to host a number of ghosts, including old Hans, one-time owner of the tavern, who was stabbed to death in the early 1800s.

While its Tory past may have precluded certain claims to history with General Washington and the founding fathers, today's Black Bass Hotel is probably the most pleasant dining and visiting experience of any of the historical taverns I have yet visited.

Old photo of the now Black Bass Hotel
(Photo from hotel's web site)

Black Bass Hotel, Lumberville, PA
(photo from hotel web site)

Est. 1887 or earlier as "Black Bass Hotel," 1745 as a tavern (Temple Bar) - Building constructed: 1745
Previous bars in this location: Temple Bar, Wall’s Tavern, Lumberville Hotel, The Rising Sun
Web site: 
Articles: onlyinyourstate - nepascene - hauntedhouses - happeningmag - visitbuckscounty - americanpublichousereview - nytimes - thereporteronline - travelmaven - tripadvisor - newyorkoptimist 

#4677 - The Continental Tavern, Yardley, PA - 7/13/2022

Continental Tavern, Yardley, PA
Yardley Borough, Pennsylvania was incorporated in 1895, but the Yardleys first started settling in the area in 1682, originally with a purchase agreement for 500 acres from William Penn himself. The community of about 2,500 today, located just across the Delaware from New Jersey, has long been known to be a major stop on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. But it would be a century and a half after that war before some history buff new owners of a local hotel and tavern would unearth a motherload of artifacts from a long inaccessible chamber below the kitchen, to help flesh out their route and story.

Frank Lyons, owner, Continental Tavern

When I asked a few questions at the Continental Tavern in Yardley, PA in the summer of 2022, the staff there told me it was unfortunate that Frank wasn't there, as he was the main source of that sort of history. Frank Lyons, I would find out, was a retired commercial airline captain and partner in a small investment banking business before purchasing the Tavern in 2007, along with his wife Patty and daughter Kelly Lyons Vliet and her husband Sean. Frank was a revolutionary period history buff who had already participated with 15 to 20 people to annually re-enact the roles of the Massachusetts regiment that rowed the boats during Washington's crossing of the Delaware, just three miles down the road from the Tavern. (Frank plays the role of Colonel John Glover of the Marblehead, MA.)

Fortunately Frank arrived before I left, and informed of my questions, quite generously gave me a very interesting tour of the place. With Frank leading, the history reveals itself floor by floor, starting with the large number of artifacts on display in the bar itself. From there we went upstairs to some event spaces, displaying paintings and artifacts from the revolutionary war period, with much explanatory commentary from Frank, as well as many more artifacts from the tavern itself. On the third floor, which Frank has described as "the laboratory," one sees the cleaning and organizing process, complete with autoclave and rack after rack of antique items -- more than many historical museums. Finally, through a new, more accessible opening created just three weeks earlier, we entered the once hidden room which was slowly revealing its history and layer after layer of artifacts.

Though this chamber was a surprise to everyone, Frank and family knew the historical relevance of the hotel, and insisted on the means to restore it as part of the purchase. "Frank ... said the family has traced the property’s history back to the late 1700s, when it was an outbuilding of the Thomas Yardley estate. In 1808, it was sold as a shop and residence. By the 1840s, a town library occupied the second floor and the unlicensed tavern space functioned as a Temperance House. In the 1850s, the building also served boarders." (phillyburbs)

Susan Taylor, President of the Yardley Historical Association, added "The initial structure was built in 1845 as a temperance house and store. Then, in 1866 the proprietor received a license to operate a hotel with 18 rooms. A fierce blaze destroyed the building in 1876. The following year, it was rebuilt." (buckscountyintime)

Frank Lyons, re-enactment of 
the Delaware Crossing

Frank explained how, in the mid 1800s, owner Samuel Slack sought repeatedly to obtain a liquor license, over the fierce opposition of local women's temperance group in the Quaker town. He was finally successful in 1864, and said license is, of course, proudly displayed in the tavern today.

The transition to both a structure more true to its 19th century origins and to an attractive, viable business was described in Suburban Life Magazine

'Prior to settlement, the family presented their four-phase restoration plan to the Yardley Borough Planning Commission. The plan called for a total renovation of the three-story building, an upgrade to meet modern code standards, redesign of the entire first floor of the Tavern, and lastly, the reconstruction of a wrap-around porch to replicate the precise fa├žade fashioned in 1877. The proposed plan sought to revive the building’s remarkable charm and revitalize the center of Yardley.

“In 1876, a fire destroyed the two story structure and it was rebuilt in 1877 on the same foundation in its current three-story configuration,” Frank says. “During our renovations, which began in late 2007, an inaccessible chamber was discovered under the kitchen … in the corner of the chamber was a stone tunnel, which ran deep into the ground. We began an archeological dig looking for evidence of the Underground Railroad. What we found so far is over 10,000 empty whiskey bottles from the Prohibition Era, as well as a number of artifacts from Yardley’s past.” Many of those bottles and artifacts are on display around the building.

Frank notes at the time of purchase, the Tavern’s first floor was a 116 seat bar and restaurant. On the second and third floors, however, were 18 small hotel rooms which had gone unused since the 1950’s. In April of 2008, Vliet and the Lyons’ reopened the Tavern with 110 seats in the first floor bar and restaurant. In 2011 the second floor reopened to feature a 60-seat special purpose room designed for catered events and overflow dining, in addition to a small meeting room and office. A new efficient kitchen “line” was designed by Ken Fuller—one of Eastern Pennsylvania’s most prominent kitchen engineers — to offer modern equipment, and productive work areas. The last of the renovations were completed in the spring of 2012 with the reconstruction of the exterior wrap-around porch containing 22 seats for outdoor dining. Today, the Continental Tavern remains a successful and vibrant local dining destination.

“In a soundbite, the Tavern serves ‘old fashioned American tavern fare with a curiously modern accent,’” Frank says. “We have a robust selection of standard tavern comfort foods, such as ribs, burgers, steaks and pot pies, which are prepared in our kitchen with the finest ingredients. Each week however, our chefs plan unique specials which rival the best fine dining establishments in the county. There’s something for everyone.”'

Frank described the careful process of the dig with a number of family members and employees dedicating their time to the efforts, each additional each downward going a bit further back in time. He told of local historians and Underground Railroad buffs believed there must have been just such a stop on their road to freedom.

Continental Tavern, Yardley, PA
First liquor license, 1864

'Millard Mitchell, the late grandson of a slave, was astounded when he visited the excavation in 2008. As a descendant of the borough’s African American community, he beamed, “This is what I’ve been looking for my whole life.” It confirmed childhood stories about the Continental.'  (phillyburbs)

The tavern's website describes the early process in more detail:

"During construction, a large chamber was found in the basement below the kitchen. The chamber was approximately 15 feet by 15 feet with 18 inch stone walls. There was no entrance into the chamber from the outside or from the rest of the basement, which means that there had to have been a trap door from above.

Construction workers had to enter the chamber to run mechanical systems through it. What they found inside was starling. One corner of the chamber contained a mysterious quarter circle stone wall. The chamber was 4 feet from floor to ceiling. As crews began to dig every shovelful of dirt contained unusual artifacts — alcohol bottles, apothecary items, figurines, personal care products, tungsten light bulbs, an enigmatic weapon, and numerous other items pictured here on the website.

A few stones were removed from the quarter circle stone wall to reveal a 5 foot diameter cylindrical stone tunnel which went deep into the ground. Local Underground Railroad historians indicated that the tunnel was connected to a series of tunnels which came up from the canal and connected the Tavern with 2 other Yardley structures. These buildings were way stations on the Underground Railroad which was in operation from the early 1800’s through the Civil War."

Remnants of the madam?
Continental Tavern, Yardley, PA

Finally there are, of course, the ghosts. One of these, Frank believes, is related to some artifacts found crammed into one the walls. He showed me a silver handle of an old purse, a bloodied corset, and the rusted remains of a revolver that would appear to confirm a story of a beautiful madam murdered during the tavern's time as a brothel. There's even a painting that is said to resemble the woman, and some confirmatory "evidence" of the story and artifacts from local paranormal experts. In general the building is said to be one of the most haunted in the area, with the ghost stories being one of the largest attractions for visitors.

I enjoy hearing the stories, but being the stodgy sort, most interested in the more tangible aspects of history, I was extremely grateful for the opportunity to see all the artifacts and operations, and to collect the historical commentary from Frank. I am so pleased to find people with a love of history investing their time and effort into preserving great locations like this, and keeping them alive for the public. Finally, having finished my meal ahead of this, Frank sent me on my way to my next historical tavern, asking a question the Yardley bar for which he already knew the answer. "Is that enough history for you?"

2 N Main St, Yardley, PA 19067 - (215) 493-9191
Est. 1864 (first bar), 1877 (current building) - Building constructed: 1877
Web site: - facebook
Reviews: buckscountyadventures - paintingglassmedia - suburbanlifemagazine - - buckscountyintime - phillyburbs - onlyinyourstate - yelp - tripadvisor  

Wednesday, February 01, 2023

Historical Note: Red Robin

Red Robin origin story
as posted in Robinson, PA 
When we moved to Pittsburgh in the spring of 2022 I was pleased to find a Red Robin Gourmet Burgers restaurant less than 3 minutes from our new home, and indeed I just enjoyed a Banzai Burger just a couple days ago. They may be a large, nation-wide chain now (some 500 restaurants), but any long-time Seattlelite will tell you that it started from one joint perched across Portage Bay from the University of Washington, beside a sharply sloping parking lot that made one wonder if their vehicle might tumble into the bay. Some older residents will even recall that before it was purchased by local restauranteur Gerry Kingen, the place was a pot-soaked hippy and biker dive, with a Red Robin mascot that was quite obviously stoned.

Parts of this story (eliding the pot smoking) were enthusiastically adopted by the current Red Robin corporation, and indeed, a version of the story greeted me on the wall of our restaurant in Pittsburgh -- and, one presumes, across the country. Part of the origin story on the company web site, repeated in Wikipedia, and now in plexiglass within the restaurants themselves reads:

Red Robin mascot c. 1960s-1970s

"This building dated from 1940 and was first called Sam's Tavern. The owner, Sam, sang in a barbershop quartet and could frequently be heard singing the song "When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin' Along)." He liked the song so much that he eventually changed the name to Sam's Red Robin." -- wikipedia 

I really appreciate it when bars include documentation on their origins, and this is a nice story. However, when one reviews primary sources it does not appear to be true. For starters, the place appears to have been constructed in 1916 rather than 1940, and to have been named "Red Robin" for several years and multiple owners before Sam [Caston]. Polk directories begin listing Red Robin at the address in 1942 under owner H.M. McDonald and later J.R. Raymond. Even earlier it is listed under bars from 1940 to 1942 with just the name of owner Glenn McCall. Sam Caston appears to have taken ownership sometime between 1951 and 1953 (inclusive), and one guesses that he simply changed Red Robin to "Sam's Red Robin." 

Original Red Robin location c.1969
Paul Gillingham photo

In addition to Sam not starting the business or originating the Red Robin name, the location on Fuhrman Road above the UW would appear to not be the original location. There is a "Red Robin" bar listed at 1319 3rd Avenue in downtown Seattle in 1935 and 1936, and closing or moving shortly before the place of the same name happened to open across from the university.

When it comes to the hippy/biker/student era a few decades later, we have the benefit of having many old patrons still around, including local  historians Paul Dorpat and Roger Wheeling. I'm taking the liberty of adding a few comments from locals about those times, taken from a Facebook conversation and a great Clay Eals article, to help capture the flavor:

1937 view of building that would become Red Robin
(Building constructed in 1916)

  • "I had friends down the street. We went there often. I remember peanut shells all over the floor. '69 '70 maybe '71." Gary H.
  • "Friday was $.10 beer night, with $1.25 burger baskets. Usually got there early and bought $2.00 worth of beer, filling the table. By 9pm, we were relieving ourselves off the back deck. Great times. That's the Red Robin I know." David M. 
  • "During the ‘60’s I lived a little south of the Red Robin. When me and my young buddies walked by we made sure to walk on the sidewalk across the street out of fear of the bikers out front. We had heard stories." Kim S.
  •  "In the old Robin, if they’d passed a pool cue around, someone would have smoked it." Seattle Times restaurant columnist John Hinterberger
  • "Had my first legal beer there in 1957. Was there quite a bit. My favorite Tavern and in those days a hangout for the poets and artist colony in the houseboats below. Sam, the then owner was encyclopedic in his knowledge of Pacific Coast League baseball and the Seattle Rainiers. Seattle lost a great institution when Sam sold it." Stan W.
  • 'The original was the best. I had short hair because I was in the service. 1967. So I would hear , “narc. Narc”. When I’d go in. Until the regulars go to know me.' Don M.
  • "I am a vendor for Red Robin and supply all 535 stores. last time I was at corporate (in Denver Colorado now) they said they just couldn’t keep the property because it was literally falling apart and slipping down the hill. I don’t think they really had a choice whether to keep it or dump it from their portfolio." Carol D.
  • "Did a lot of etched glass work for RR, and other Kingen establishments when working for Trade*Marx Sign Co early '80s." Ryan C.
Interior view of Red Robin c.1973
Photo via Chuck Gould

The evolution from ramshackle student hangout to corporate gourmet burger chain began in 1969 when the restaurant was purchased by Gerry Kingen. Kingen grew up working in his parents' restaurant while attending Renton High, and after purchasing the Red Robin would also become known to Seattlelites for establishing its first fern bar " Boondock's, Sundecker's & Greenthumb's," the steak and lobster house "Lion O'Reilly's & B.J. Monkeyshine's," singing waiter location "The Great American Food & Beverage Company," legendary dive "Blue Moon Tavern," music venue "Warehouse Tavern and Nightclub," and iconic Seattle seafood brunch home "Salty's."

Over the next few years Kingen would expand and remodel the Robin location and revamp the menu. He added a strip steak based on the one served in the train cars of "Andy's Diner," and 28 different kinds of burgers, creating what he would describe as a "burgers and booze" model, and "a McDonalds for adults." (Seattle Times)  The concept worked, and he would soon open a second location in Northgate Mall. Although Kingen says he considered franchising at the time, that phase was actually kicked off in 1979 when Mike and Steve Snyder convinced him to allow them to become a franchisee of the concept. Mike Snyder's restaurants were a success, and he quickly expanded to 14 locations. (Yakima Herald) The expansion into a nationwide chain of hundreds would come after the franchise was purchased by Japanese corporation Skylark.

Large deck and parking lot expansion
Original Red Robin, c.1970
Photo via Taylor Ward

Kingen sold a 30% share to Skylark in 1985, and a total of 90% by 1987. Expansion continued but by 1995 sales were slumping in the corporate owned restaurants. Skylark turned to Mike Snyder, whose 14 franchises were thriving by comparison, as well as asking Kingen to return. Snyder would be named President and CEO in 1996. Under Snyder's leadership, the fortunes of the chain would turn around. and merge with Snyder's franchise units in 2000. Later, with approximately 200 restaurants in place, the company would go public in July 2002. (referenceforbusiness

Originally planning to expand to 850 restaurants, reaching at least as high as 572 in 2019, and with the stock peaking in 2015, the brand has struggled a bit, decided in 2018 to halt expansion (nrn), and settled back down to around 500 locations at this writing. In the meantime, the original location above Portage Bay closed its doors in March 2010, citing high maintenance costs. Although there followed rumors of a new restaurant in the old building, it remained empty until it was razed in 2014. A new 3-story mixed use building took its place, with the bottom floor hosting Johnny Mo's Pizzeria, a joint effort of buddies Johnny from New York and Mo from Chicago.

Re. the two great characters behind the modern franchise, Gerry Kingen carries on, currently working on expanding Seattle's Pecos Pit BBQ (local sports fans recognize its first location south of the baseball stadium). (pecospit)  Mike Snyder, whose son Graham started two restaurants of his own in Yakima -- Cowiche Canyon Kitchen & Icehouse and the E.Z. Tiger -- tragically died of a self-inflicted gun wound in Dec 2018. (yakimaherald

3272 Fuhrman Ave. E., Seattle WA
Est. 1940? - Closed March 21, 2020 - Building constructed: 1916
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Articles: pauldorpat - seattletimes - mashed - referenceforbusiness - yakimaherald - wikipedia -