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Originally published March 1, 2010 at 9:43 PM | Page modified March 1, 2010 at 9:43 PM

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Original Red Robin restaurant to close March 21

The original Red Robin restaurant, the storied student hangout at the south end of Seattle's University Bridge, is closing March 21, its historic building deemed too expensive to maintain.

Seattle Times food writer

The original Red Robin restaurant, the storied student hangout at the south end of Seattle's University Bridge, is closing March 21, its historic building deemed too expensive to maintain.

"We've decided not to renew our lease," said Jessi Klein, general manager of the eatery famed for its big burgers and beer.

According to a company news release, the "decision was driven by the need for considerable investment to maintain the building and make the restaurant more efficient from an operations perspective."

As the restaurant to launch the brand more than 40 years ago, the first Red Robin location at 3272 Fuhrman Ave. E. "has a rich history associated with it," said Eric Houseman, company president and chief operating officer.

It was 1969 when Gerry Kingen, the 20-something son of local restaurateurs — and now owner of Salty's restaurants — bought the Red Robin tavern.

"I ran it as a tavern" for a few years, recalls Kingen, whose clientele were the university crowd and local houseboat habitués.

"Before we put in food, we were serving burnt popcorn and plastic-wrapped sandwiches prepared in an infrared oven, doing about 12 grand a month — which was big money back then."

In 1973, Kingen did a thorough remodel of the hillside establishment and upgraded its menu.

"We put a deck in the back, added two burgers, fish and chips and a strip steak out of Andy's Diner [another Seattle landmark, since closed]. It wasn't exactly Andy's recipe, but the concept was the same."

Seattle historian Paul Dorpat remembers Red Robin's jukebox: "Muddy Waters, psychedelic, none of that teen-y pop."

And he recalls the night Kingen closed the tavern before the makeover.

"When you know a place is going to be destroyed, you help it along the way," Dorpat says of the "spirited community" 200-strong that night, who enthusiastically brought down the house.

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In the wake of that redo, business tripled, says Kingen. Red Robin eventually expanded to Northgate and elsewhere and later franchised.

"I basically created a grownup's McDonald's," he says.

In 1985 Kingen sold a majority of his ownership to a Japanese corporation for $6 million. "I told them, 'give me a check for a whole lot of money and you can run it yourself!' — and that's what they did."

A year later, he reduced his interest in the company to 10 percent and soon after divested all company ownership.

However, he held on to the Red Robin property on Fuhrman Avenue until 2004, when it sold for $2.2 million to Montlake Plaza LLC, according to county records.

The restaurant chain, now known as Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, is a publicly traded company headquartered in Colorado, with 430 restaurants in the United States and Canada.

The 0.36-acre property on Fuhrman has been listed for sale for $2.5 million since last year. The listing indicates the site has the potential to be developed into a mixed-use building with 29 residential units and 5,000 square feet of retail.

According to the property's owner, Anne Marie Kreidler — one of the names behind Montlake Plaza LLC and the property owner of Zesto's (the Ballard burger restaurant) — she's got plans for the original Red Robin.

"The restaurant itself won't be closed for very long," she said Monday. "We are in the process of leasing it to another restaurant." No names were mentioned.

Klein said nobody will be out of work as a result of the restaurant closure.

"Our 50 employees are all finding new homes at other area Red Robins," she said.

The company says it may seek "an alternative location for a Red Robin restaurant in the University community in the future."

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com.

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