The chain will soon close its U-Village location, but it lives on in UW grads' memories
Past the cash registers and carafes of coffee, back by the bathrooms, Roy McCready sits alone at a small table, reading the Saturday Seattle Times in its entirety at the University Village Burgermaster.
Only McCready, whose son, Mike, is Pearl Jam’s longtime lead guitarist, is never truly alone. Every couple of minutes, a different acquaintance sits down to make small talk with Roy, whose name is engraved on a plaque at his table, declaring that it’s reserved for him and him alone.
“Mike McCready is more like Roy’s son there. Roy’s the more famous of the duo,” says Burgermaster COO Alex Jensen. “They’re both tremendously nice and generous people, as are most of the regulars.”
Roy makes it into Burgermaster nearly every day. On this Saturday morning, he seems like the mayor of the restaurant, which was founded in 1952 by Jensen’s grandfather and has since grown to include five Puget Sound locations. But the same could be said for many of Burgermaster’s hard-core loyalists, giving the throwback burger-and-breakfast joint the feel of a pancake social at an Elks or Eagles Club.
A few tables down from Roy, a server brings an order of pancakes and Muffinmasters — breakfast sandwiches consisting of sausage, egg, and American cheese encased in an English Muffin — to Mike Holm and his three young children. Holm grew up near the Northeast Seattle institution, frequenting it with family, friends, and Little League teammates — and favoring Tom & Jerry milkshakes. He now coaches his kids in baseball, and Burgermaster is where they hold postgame get-togethers as well.
Holm also worked at the U-Village Burgermaster for a few months when he was 17.
“I was by far the youngest person working there,” Holm recalls. “Everybody was 40-plus. It was a pretty interesting cast of characters. One of the guys I worked with, I think he was Russian, was a super friendly dude, always excited to see me, and yelled my name.”
About a decade later, Holm walked into Burgermaster as a customer, accompanied by the woman who would become his wife. He still recognized two of the managers and heard the familiar sound of his former co-worker yelling, “Hey, Mike!”
“To see those guys for close to 10 years after I worked there still there, says something about it,” he says.
“I think the customers would show up at my house with pitchforks and torches if I tried to close down early.”
Alex Jensen, COO
But 10 years from now, the U-Village Burgermaster will almost certainly not be around, as the shuttered Safeway next door is slated for redevelopment and the land the restaurant sits on is owned by the same company.
“It’s not looking great,” Jensen says of the flagship’s future. “We’ve known for more than a decade that we’ve been on borrowed time. Nonetheless, when things start to near the end, it’s no fun. It’s the original location and we have a lot of history there. With that being said, we anticipated being gone by now and the date keeps getting pushed back to where some of our customers are legitimately speculating, ‘The way interest rates are going, is this going to fall through?’ The company’s being relatively tight-lipped, and every time I talk to them, it’s like six months from today.”
But as frustrating as such a stay of execution can be, Jensen plans to keep the grills hot until he’s forced to turn them off. “I think the customers would show up at my house with pitchforks and torches if I tried to close down early,” he says. “It’s been a good run, so when it ends, it will be with good memories.”
And many of those memories are inextricably linked to the University of Washington.
No oar-dinary restaurant
This isn’t the first time Burgermaster’s future has been in doubt. Back in the 1990s, when Safeway purchased the property from Burgermaster’s previous landlord, there was a rumor going around that the supermarket giant would force the restaurant out.
In response, the regulars rallied around the onetime drive-in, which shifted to its current sit-down format in the late ’70s. A University of Washington engineering professor by the name of Jeff Douthwaite organized a protest where loyal customers walked up and down Northeast 45th Street, wielding signs. Safeway responded by assuring restaurant management that it had no plans to redevelop the property. But 30 years on, plans have changed.
The original Burgermaster was still a drive-in when Dwight Phillips went there in college. Phillips was a coxswain for UW’s men’s crew in the late ’60s and early ’70s, back when rowers were permitted to live in Conibear Shellhouse on the shores of Lake Washington. Between the shellhouse and Burgermaster, what is now inhabited by Husky Stadium’s north parking lot was then a landfill known as the Montlake Dump.
“It was full of rats and seagulls,” Phillips recalls. “It was not a pleasant-smelling place. So, when I think about going from the crew house to the Burgermaster, that vision goes through my mind. We had to drive around the Montlake Dump to get to the Burgermaster.
“I had a 1958 Dodge and I was one of a handful of guys at the crew house who actually had a car. It was called the Batmobile because it had those big fins on the back. We would jump four or five guys into my Batmobile and head to the Burgermaster. I was a coxswain, so I was a small guy, but most crew guys are 6’3”, 6’4”, 6’5” and have a ravenous appetite. They were probably just in heaven when they saw us pull up. It was a lot of burgers. It was a feast.”
Phillips and his teammates’ trips to “the Burg” were mostly informal, but the restaurant has become so synonymous with UW’s crew program that it now boasts a section called the Oar Room. Until recently, an oar from UW’s Olympic gold medal-winning “Boys in the Boat” team was affixed to the wall. But it was removed so it could appear in an upcoming George Clooney-directed film about the Depression-era rowers, and another oar has been gifted to the restaurant in its stead.
“Guy Harper, he graduated in ’54. I’ve talked to all these guys, and I will tell you that, going all the way back to the Guy Harper years, those guys went to the Burgermaster,” says Eric Cohen, ’82, another former UW coxswain who’s since become the program’s historian. “It was a place for winding down after practice and having that camaraderie and talking about what happened on the water. It was a place that became synonymous with the rowing team to the point where they built that little rowing room. The [post-grad] masters group, they would hang out there after practice.”
Cohen grew up a few blocks from the Burg and remembers visiting there when he was a child. It’s something he’s never stopped doing.
“I remember eating there during one of our rowing stewards deals and the coach was there and we were talking about how to move the program forward,” he says. “It’s been a place for all kinds of dialogue, some very on the surface and some fairly deep. You can find those cubbyholes and feel separated from the crowd and have some fairly honest conversations. You didn’t feel like you were being listened to or disturbing anybody else. It was a unique spot. It definitely had its traits that were different than any other place around.”
‘A place where they matter’
Seventeen years ago, Professor Douthwaite introduced his friend and fellow Burgermaster regular Tim Newcomb to Margaret Holland, a vivacious blonde who had graduated from UW in 1978. Newcomb and Holland hit it off and soon married, while Douthwaite, his masterful matchmaking completed, died in 2008.
Nowadays, Newcomb has dementia. Early on in his ordeal, he suffered from “hallucinations and paranoia,” says Holland. But that’s settled down considerably, in part because of his daily excursions to Burgermaster.
Newcomb can’t drive with his condition, but he can hop on the No. 67 bus near his home in Northgate and take it almost directly to Burgermaster, where he commiserates with the likes of McCready, his old neighbor in nearby Laurelhurst.
“It’s a nice support group there,” says Holland. “His best friend Bob now has Alzheimer’s. There are just a lot of old guys who hang around there and it’s just their place and they talk. They were really worried about the threat of closing it because they’d have no place to go. They get all excited and think maybe it’s not gonna happen.”
The Burgermaster employees know that Newcomb has dementia, and they have Holland’s number in case something goes awry. Newcomb will occasionally forget personal items at the restaurant, which are returned to him when he comes back the next day. His daily Burgermaster routine affords Holland the opportunity to work part-time at an Edmonds art gallery, and when he returns from his excursion, he takes an afternoon nap before she comes home.
Which begs the question: What would Newcomb do without Burgermaster?
“I don’t know,” answers Holland. “Otherwise, he’d just be sitting at home. He can’t just explore places on his own, really. I don’t even want to think about it. This way he can get up in the morning; it’s like going to work. People at Burgermaster are always handing him his coat or keys or his phone the next day. He wouldn’t have anywhere to go, and social interaction is really important for dementia. All alone, his mind just creates things. I hate to think about what it would be. I probably wouldn’t be able to keep my little part-time job.
“Burgermaster gives people a hub, a place where they matter. It’s a haven for people who wouldn’t otherwise have a social network. In my husband’s case, it’s been a harbor in the storm of dementia.”