Jolly Roger restaurant burns in arson fire on October 19, 1989.

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 8/02/2001
  • Essay 3481

On October 19, 1989, the Jolly Roger restaurant, located at 8721 Lake City Way (formerly Bothell Way) burns in an arson fire. Originally named the China Castle, the building in its early years was home to a gambling den, illegal bar, and bordello. It was renamed the Jolly Roger and became a popular dancehall and restaurant. It was designated a Seattle Historic Landmark in 1979. Although preservationists seek to have it rebuilt, the damaged structure will be demolished 15 months after the fire.

The fire was somewhat suspicious, but police had neither motive nor suspects. Investigators were not able to determine how the arsonist got inside past a burglar alarm, with no signs of forced entry.

At the time, the building was owned by Denchai Sae-Eal, who was entangled in legal and financial red tape with the previous owner, Yeong Huei Wen. Wen was in the building removing his possessions the day before the fire.

The fire began after midnight in the cluttered basement, but didn't spread upstairs until after 6 a.m. When firefighters arrived, an Asian man directed them to the basement. He seemed so sure of where the fire began that they assumed he was an employee. After the fire was extinguished, the man could not be found. The owners stated that he was not an employee.

Not Your Ordinary Roadhouse

The building was built in 1934 as the China Castle. From the outside it was just another roadhouse, but within lay a den of iniquity with illegal booze, gambling, and prostitution readily available. The tower on top of the structure was used to spot police cars, which could be seen approaching from miles away. In case of a police raid, tunnels were dug beneath the structure, which ran to adjacent lots. The China Castle closed after its operator lost his liquor license. The building was sold and became the popular Jolly Roger restaurant and dancehall.

A year after the October 1989 fire, preservation activists sought to have the structure rebuilt. But before their efforts got off the ground, the building was hastily demolished on January 11, 1991.


"Speakeasy? Jolly Roger's Shady Past Still A Mystery," The North Seattle Press, January 9, 1991, p. 1; "Burning Questions Persist," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 30, 1990, pp. B-1, B-5; "Wrecker Flattens Jolly Roger's Charred Remnant," The Seattle Times, January 12, 1992, p. B-1; Paul Dorpat, "The Legend of Seattle's Jolly Roger Cafe," The Seattle Times, Pacific NW Magazine, February 25, 2012 (
Note: This essay was corrected and revised on November 17, 2017.

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