To describe the Roanoke Inn as homey and comfortable is an understatement. It’s the kind of bar where you’d like to wait out a snowstorm or make your last stand at the end of the world.
Very few watering holes have a dual identity, but from the outside, the Roanoke looks like a cross between a roadhouse and a country club, with its perfectly manicured lawn and rounded bushes. Inside it’s a warm, roughhewn tavern.
The walls are a pool table green and strewn with countless beer-themed garage-sale antiques, their glow dimmed only by time and maybe a thin layer of dust, not that I’d want it any other way. One’s eye is drawn to the hanging glass-encased Budweiser light fixture, the adjacent gumball machine (you could put them in your beer like boba), the old timey phone booth, and the motorized Nascar thingy in the corner.
There’s plentiful seating throughout the tavern and outdoor seating as well. So, when you’re on the patio you can pretend you’re too good for the people in the bar, and when you’re in the bar you can pretend the patio people are snobs. Neither are true, but it’s fun.
“The Roanoke has always been a surprise to newcomers,” says Dorothy Reeck, who’s managed it since the eighties. “They’re surprised that a place like this exists. They look around and they’re kind of in disbelief, like this just fell out of an antique store or something. That was true when I first came here. People would walk through the front door and just look left to right and up and down and ask, ‘How long has this place been here?'”
It’s been here since 1914. That was when George McGuire noticed that visitors arriving at the Roanoke Dock had nowhere to go, so in an effort to serve them and the community, he built a chicken-dinner inn near the ferry dock on 72nd Ave, called the Roanoke Inn. Business was initially rough and McGuire had to give up the inn as a result of debts, wherein a Mr. Green took over and operated it as a hotel.
At this point the history is a bit murky, as the Roanoke changed hands again and fell into ill repute. It’s rumored that a no-goodnick owner ran it as a brothel with gambling under the guise of a general store – though I checked every corner of the Roanoke twice, these extracurricular activities appear to have been retired.
During prohibition, the bar managed to flout the authorities by serving alcohol in coffee mugs. Apparently that’s all it took. One can imagine some of the coffee mugs saying, “Not alcohol,” just in case there was an inspection.
When prohibition ended, the Roanoke became a classic tavern, and sold groceries, ice cream, and soda. Since minors weren’t allowed inside, they could buy ice cream cones and other sundries at a window by the door. Minors still aren’t allowed inside and that window doesn’t sell ice cream anymore, so they’re out of luck.
In 1943, Edwin and Laura Reeck purchased the Roanoke, adding a full menu along with beer and wine. Their only son Hal married Dorothy, and after his passing in 1993, she upheld the family tradition and has been running it ever since.
“When I first came here,” says Reeck, “the customers asked me to please not put in pink curtains and change the character of the Roanoke, and I’ve tried to be faithful to that. There have been very few changes.”
One of the changes involving the old-timey phone booth didn’t quite take – Reeck tried to add some character to the phone booth with a life-size mannequin.
“We started dressing the mannequin up so she looked like a school teacher, and at Christmas time we dressed it up as Santa,” says Reeck.
“It was hard to get the mannequin into the phone booth. We had this big guy and it was his job to dress the mannequin, and so he’s upstairs dressing her, and the guys went up and took his picture,” she says, laughing. “And it was kind of funny, and it was kind of awful.”
“So we don’t do the mannequin anymore. We threw her out.”
Mannequins aside, it’s not often that anyone gets thrown out of the Roanoke. Reeck and her staff have been welcoming first-timers new to the Island and old-timers who have been coming to the Roanoke for decades. It’s why the establishment’s slogan is “Where Friends Meet Friends,” though you’re free to bring your enemies there too. Maybe even acquaintances.
The Roanoke was designated as an official historical landmark in 1976 by the State of Washington and recently celebrated its centennial year in 2014 and has sponsored fireworks at Mercer Island’s Summer Celebration every year since.
The Roanoke is open Monday through Friday, 11 am to midnight, and Saturday and Sunday, 8 am to midnight. The tavern is located at the north end of Mercer Island at 1825 72nd Ave SE.
There’s no website and barely a presence on social media (taverns that lasted a centennial don’t need to be online), so it’s best to just drop in and grab a beer with friends. You read the slogan.
Chason Gordon is a local freelance writer whose work has appeared in Seattle Weekly, City Arts Magazine, The Capitol Hill Times, and other publications. Read more of his work at Literally Humor: www.literallyhumor.com
Photography by Laura Schaps.