Row, Row, Row Your Boat All the Way to Mercer Island’s Roanoke

Row, Row, Row Your Boat All the Way to Mercer Island’s Roanoke

by, Kelly Logie



Co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen. Actor from The Soup and Community, Joel McHale. Barack Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham.


What do these three people have in common?


They are all from Mercer Island, Washington.


When you think of living on an island, you typically imagine tropical scenery with palm trees surrounded by bright blue water, right? Do you need to catch a plane or ferry to get on Mercer Island? Nope, you just need your car. Or a boat if you have one.


Although it is technically an island, Mercer Island doesn’t always feel like one. Mercer Island, or “MI” as most locals call it, is only a ten-minute drive from downtown Seattle. Mercer Islanders and other locals in the Seattle area cross the Interstate 90 Bridge over Lake Washington in order to get on and off the island. One minute you are in the big city, and the next you are surrounded by trees in the middle of suburbia.


Previously known as East Seattle in the early stages of its existence, Mercer Island quickly rose into popularity because its convenience to Seattle. Bellevue, another large suburban city located on the other side of the island, is also close in driving distance. With a population of approximately 24,000 people, MI is the most populated island in a lake in the United States, according to the City of Mercer Island.


Mercer Island was first settled in the late 1800s, and the city was officially established in 1960, based on the Mercer Island Chamber of Commerce. Since Mercer Island is unlike other cities because of its distinct boundaries, it has an extremely tight-knit community. Families look to raise their kids on the island because of the highly ranked school district. Younger people enjoy the easy commute to Seattle and Bellevue. Elderly people seek out the community gathering opportunities.


Tradition is one word that perfectly describes life on Mercer Island, and it can be easily summed up in only a few words.


A restaurant. But, not just any restaurant.


The oldest commercial establishment on Mercer Island.


The Roanoke Inn.


Friends, laughs, tears, burgers and beers. When anyone hears of the Roanoke Inn, it is all in good spirits. No pun intended. Looking for a place to kickback with old high school friends? Go to the Roanoke. Want to watch the game and have a good burger? Go to the Roanoke. Want to experience a Mercer Island staple? You get the idea.


“Meet me at the Roanoke,” is a common phrase used by most Mercer Islanders. Exiting off of 90, you’re driving on a curvy back road, and suddenly, there it is. A two-story house turned hotel turned bar. A white picket fence surrounds the building, red and white shutters cover the blinds, and a turquoise sign reading “Roanoke Inn Tavern” fills your vision. You’ve made it.


Built in 1914, the Roanoke Inn is the oldest running business on Mercer Island. Entering the Roanoke, you immediately see friendly faces of staff members and customers chatting with friends and family. Ever since it opened, the Roanoke has always been a lively, community-gathering place for old high school or college friends to meet up, or to even meet new friends.


“The Roanoke is a place where friends meet friends,” manager Steven Rowe says, “On any given day or night, one will experience what it is like being in the community watering hole that has stood the test of time for 101 years. One feels like they are entering a piece of modern history set in a suburban town sandwiched between two big cities.”


In the early years of the inn, Mercer Island was known as a dairy-farming community. The Roanoke was located only one block away from the old ferry dock, before the 90 Bridge was built, and it quickly became a tourist destination and weekend getaway for Seattleites.


People drank during Prohibition at the Roanoke. Rumors swirl that it used to be a brothel. Gambling even occurred. These events helped earn the Roanoke the position as a Washington State Historical Landmark in 1976.


For those of us who are still under 21 (ahem, me), the Roanoke nightlife has always been something we have wondered about from afar.


Lottie MacAulay, Mercer Island resident and employee at the Roanoke says, “Before I was 21, my parents would join their friends at ‘the Rowy’ for drinks. In my mind, the Roanoke was this mysterious place where older people hung out.”


People my age, myself included, have been counting down the days until they can go to the Roanoke for drinks with high school friends. I envy my older brother and parents who always meet up with their friends at the inn.


“When I was finally 21, I was stoked to be part of a Mercer Island cultural staple. The restaurant is always full of community members and it makes for a fun, welcoming work environment,” MacAulay says.


Even though not too many people know about the Roanoke, true Mercer Islanders know all about it. Under 21 Mercer Islanders fantasize about it. It is what makes Mercer Island feel like home.


Even though I have a few months to go until I turn 21 and I can go out drinking with friends, when I return to Mercer Island this summer, “Meet me at the Roanoke,” will be commonly used in my vocabulary.


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