ANACORTES — A generation ago, when most of the streets in this Skagit County port city were dusty gravel lanes, dive bars lined one of the few roads that was paved: the main drag, Commercial Avenue.
When their day’s work at the mills and aboard the fishing boats was done, Anacortes men drank at the Harbor, the Sucia Reef, the Anchor and at least a half-dozen other smoky, dimly lit joints. On Saturday night, they often took the family to the Hatchcover for fare like the “captain’s plate”: breaded oysters, clams, scallops and prawns, pulled out of the freezer and dumped in the deep fryer.
Today, the mills are long gone. The fishing fleet’s outnumbered by yachts. And most of the dive bars are gone, too, their storefronts taken over by gift shops, hair styling salons and yacht brokerages, or bulldozed to make way for Anacortes’ new growth industry: the health-care needs of the many older folks who have made their retirement homes there.
A couple of the old bars survive, however, most notably, the Brown Lantern Ale House in downtown Anacortes.
The Brown Lantern — locals generally shorten the name to “the Brown” — used to be perhaps the darkest, dingiest tavern in town. But in the mid-1990s, new owners cleaned up the place, scraped 60 years worth of nicotine grunge off the walls, and created Anacortes’ best place for meeting friends over satisfying pub food and potent potables.
The Brown occupies two long, narrow storefronts. The south side is the original tavern. A few years ago, the business expanded northward to a space formerly occupied by a used bookstore, allowing for more seating and an expanded kitchen.
It’s certainly a pubby place: wood trim and paneling everywhere, and a fairly ornate bar with a tasteful, skillfully made portrait of a nude woman above it. There’s also a ton of sports memorabilia on the walls (two representative random samples: a team photo of the 1953 St. Louis Browns, and an old Life magazine cover featuring 1940s Chicago Bears quarterback Sid Luckman).
But the Brown’s not really a sports bar, so if gaping incessantly at sporting competitions on a big-screen TV isn’t your thing, you’ll still be happy here.
We ducked in for lunch on a recent rainy afternoon. By day, and into the evening, the Brown is an English-style pub in that it attracts a diverse bunch: business owners, folks who work at the nearby city hall, retired couples, beefy men who watch a lot of Fox News at home, sailors from the naval air station 20 miles to the south, tattooed and pierced 20-somethings. You’ll find them all here.
Admirably, the kitchen staff tries to do as much in-house as possible. The meat in my roast beef pepper melt sandwich ($12.25) was roasted and sliced on the premises, not at a factory in Illinois, and the cup of au jus was made from scratch, not by tearing open a packet of powder.
Other tempting selections include a seafood po’ boy made with local oysters and prawns ($12.25) and a sandwich of pork roasted for eight hours and hand-shredded ($11.25). Everything comes with french fries, but you can substitute soup or salad for $2.50 more.
Speaking of soups and salads, we also chose the ale house combo, which consists of a half sandwich of the day and either a cup of soup or a “small” salad that turned out to be a substantial serving ($10.25). The sandwich was nestled alongside a generous helping of lightly dressed salad greens with sunflower seeds and house-baked croutons.
Other salad options include a spicy Thai chicken salad ($14.50) and a classic Cobb salad ($13.50).
Burgers, all made with 1/3-pound ground chuck patties, start at $8, although hungry folks can choose the “colossus burger,” two-thirds of a pound of meat smothered with green chilies, sauteed onions, cheese and the tavern’s homemade mayonnaise ($12.25).
A number of beers are on tap, and the full bar was already cranking out cocktails on our midafternoon visit. The serving staff treats customers like family.
The Brown serves the full menu until 10 p.m., but plan on dining in the earlier evening. A younger party crowd usually starts showing up around 9. At the bar, a gadget that dispenses Jagermeister stands ready for them.
On Sundays, the places serves brunch. The breakfast mac and cheese ($10) will provide the calories you’ll need for a long ramble through Anacortes’ 2,800 acres of public forest land.
If you find yourself in the Anacortes area and everyone in your party is 21 or older, the Brown Lantern is definitely a place worth knowing about. It’s an authentic bit of Americana, the sort of place the nationally franchised “neighborhood bar and grills” pretend to be.
Mark Carlson: 425-339-3457 or email@example.com
Brown Lantern Ale House
412 Commercial Ave., Anacortes; www.brownlantern.com; 360-293-2544.
Specialty: Pub grub and potent potables.
Hours: Food 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week; opens at 10 a.m. Sunday.
This is a 21-and-older establishment.