The big goodbye?

End nears for Tini Bigs at 1st and Denny as development looms

In a city rapidly changing, Tini Bigs has been a constant. 

One of Seattle’s hallmark cocktail bars celebrated its first day in business on Dec. 2, 1996. Every single day since, it’s been open.

“Originally, I was in the restaurant business as a server in my early years, and I used to work a lot of holidays,” said owner Keith Robbins. “Once I got off of work, there was nowhere to go.”

For Robbins, the idea was the Tini Bigs could be that place to go for people in the industry on those days when everything else was shuttered. 

But sometime between now and the end of January, that 7,000-plus day streak at the corner of First Avenue North and Denny Way will come to end, as it and its sibling karaoke and tiki lounge Hula Hula close their doors to make way for a six-story mixed-use development. 

The future for both establishments remains up in the air, but Robbins said progress was being made in finding a new home for Hula Hula. For Tini Bigs, despite a year of searching, a new space has not been found with time quickly running out. 

But as he explained the situation, the bar can’t move to just any building. 

“It’s almost too late now, but we’re trying to find a standalone building that’s got some character,” he said. “I don’t want Tini Bigs to be in a brand new building.”

With a few exceptions, it’s hard to find a new build with the kind of character he’s looking for, he said, and while there have been some “interesting offers,” none have been quite right. Robbins said that included an offer to move back in once the development was completed, but standing on the sidelines during construction wasn’t worth it.

The impending move is far from the first hurdle Robbins has faced in operating the cocktail lounge. Over the past two decades, he’s seen plenty of change in the neighborhood, and the city. 

“It’s been evolving for many years, but the foot’s on the gas now,” he said “Things have accelerated in ridiculous fashion.”

By the time he got word that the 1929-constructed building was going on the market, three of the four surrounding structures were under construction or contract. 

But along with the development, other outside forces have also forced the business to adapt to a changing landscape in recent years. Once an active cigar lounge, the state’s indoor smoking ban, passed in 2005, dealt a major blow to the bar’s bottom line. 

“Our business dropped 42 percent the first three months,” Robbins said, “and it never recovered since.”

The departure of the NBA’s Sonics from the city and nearby KeyArena also cut into business. 

“The Sonics were very, very good to us,” he said. 

In general, Seattle has been a hard place to do business. 

“The city has made small business, and especially the restaurant business, harder and harder,” he said. 

Despite an uncertain future, Tini Bigs will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a party on Dec. 7, which will mark its 7,311th consecutive day of operation. Food, wine, and spirits will be half-off. 

“It’s going to be crazy,” Robbins said. 

The plan is to officially close shortly after New Year’s Eve, while the building itself must be vacated by the end of January. Robbins didn’t put an exact date on when the search for a new location would end, only saying that if and when the iconic back bar, originally built in 1909, is sold, “Tini Bigs is no more, as far as I’m concerned.” 

For Robbins, a Queen Anne High School graduate, and Magnolia resident, saying so long to the old location will be difficult, but there’s already been so much change. 

“It’s going to be a tough day when I lock the door for the last time, or watch the wrecking ball,” he said. “It’s not the city I grew up in.”

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