Few bars can trace their start back to a bitter dispute between gillnetters and canneries. But from the moment you step foot inside Workers Tavern (281 W Marine Drive, Astoria, 503-338-7291), it’s clear that this place is unique—the Christmas tree hanging from the ceiling and signs for Meat Bingo give that away—even to those unfamiliar with the history.
Located in Astoria’s Uniontown, the business went through several identities—grocery store, cafe, club—before it finally became a bar. But through its transformation, two things never changed: the name and the fact that it sold beer.
Workers sprung up out of necessity like most of the buildings in that neighborhood. In response to a failed two-month strike in the late 1800s by fishers protesting the low prices canneries paid for salmon, Astoria’s large population of Finnish immigrants helped launch a packing company led by the anglers. Located a few blocks from the tavern, Union Fishermen’s Cooperative was born, and more families began to settle in the area.
The tavern is still a fishers’ bar, but also draws any number of colorful locals looking for a stiff drink after a hard day’s work. And even though you’re a stranger, you’ll always be welcomed, whether that’s by the bartender passing out Jell-O shots, or a customer doling out high-fives hollering, “I’m vaccinated!”
Even better, you can now stay the night in an adjacent studio apartment reservable on Airbnb called the Marina Hangout. The room embraces the town’s scrappy identity with glee—from metal lockers to the two queen mattresses sunken into frames resembling wooden seaworthy vessels. It’s one of many wonderful ways to immerse yourself in Astoria history. But it’s also hard to beat the fact that after you down one too many drinks, you can stumble into your boat bed right next door.
Walk the planks
In summer, you can ride much of the length of Astoria in a restored 1913 trolley for a buck. The pandemic has kept the brick red buggy parked in its barn, and the city has yet to announce when it will return to the rails. But strolling the Riverwalk can be just as pleasant, affording you the time to examine the crumbling piers and pilings as if they were pieces in a modern art museum, as well as the El Primero, one of the oldest steel yachts still operating in the U.S. that’s tied up just offshore. On the west side of the Astoria-Megler Bridge is the city’s Maritime Memorial, where the majority of the black granite plaques are engraved with the names of people who had professions like “gillnetter,” “tug boat captain,” and “skipper.”
Build your own crab boil
When the pandemic claimed Baked Alaska in May 2020, just shy of the beloved fine dining restaurant’s 20th year, the news came as a blow to both locals and tourists. Fortunately, the iconic location on Pier 12 has a new set of restaurateurs who have revived the massive space. The SEA Crab House (1 12th St., Pier 12, Astoria, 971-544-9665, theseacrabhouse.com) brings more seafood to a town already swimming in it, but here it is served as a Southern-style boil. The collision of Cajun and Thai spices has a heady, nose-watering effect—and since the boil is dumped directly onto a piece of butcher paper covering the table, you’d do well to bib up and request a roll of paper towels.
Drink beer in an old car dealership
Over the years, hotels and restaurants have started to renew waterfront warehouses abandoned by canneries, but industry has started to make a comeback along the corridor now, too. Fort George Brewery (1483 Duane St., Astoria, 503-325-7468, fortgeorgebrewery.com) recently completed construction of a production facility right along the Riverwalk. Its engine is “Kingpin,” a 60-barrel system once owned by BridgePort. Though not open to the public yet, there is now more room for seating at the Lovell Taproom, a former auto showroom and repair shop next to the pub, since much of the brewing equipment there has been moved to the waterfront.
Take a coffee break
If the wake has been working in their favor, the anglers babysitting poles at Pier 39 have already pulled up a 50-inch sturgeon before you even get to Coffee Girl (100 39th St., Astoria, 503-325-6900, thecoffeegirl.com) for breakfast. With the day’s prize already bagged, this salty group of locals is kicked back drinking Rogue beer out of cans. After spending a few minutes listening to their debate about the merits of bar pilot work, duck inside the café, where you’ll order your latte over the same counter that kept thousands of cannery workers caffeinated on their breaks. Black-and-white photos of those apron-clad women lining up for coffee hang on the wall along with a tribute to one of the original “coffee girls,” who oversaw the carafes for 27 years.
Learn how Astoria became the canning capital of the world
Just steps away from Coffee Girl is a time capsule dedicated to the local canning industry. The Hanthorn Canning Museum (100 39th St., Astoria, 503-325-2502, canneryworker.org), located in the oldest remaining fish processing plant on the Columbia, recounts 130 years of fishing and packing history. Volunteer-run and free to enter, your self-guided tour will take you past part of an actual canning line that could take a finger off and outline the chronology of Bumble Bee Foods, which includes the production of an early ’70s TV commercial where local kids were hired to smile, eat tuna sandwiches and sing the brand’s jingle over and over during a 10-hour shoot. Don’t miss the Cannery Workers Memorial Wall outside filled with their signatures and dates of tenure.
After learning about the finished product, head to the Columbia River Maritime Museum (1792 Marine Drive, Astoria, 503-325-2323, crmm.org) to discover what it’s like trying to wrangle fish from the water. Mostly, it’s all about shipwrecks and Coast Guard rescues since ocean swells slam against millions of gallons of freshwater at the bar, making it one of the most dangerous in the world. Videos and a life-size diorama illustrate how breaking waves can toss sea vessels of all sizes around as if they were toy boats.
Keep Astoria weird
Lincoln City has its casino, Seaside its arcades. But what if you’re in Astoria and have a hankering to plug money into a box and push buttons? Seek out the strange vending machines. The town is home to a number of appliances dispensing things that are far more interesting than candy bars and chips. First hit Astoria Coffee Company (304 37th St., Astoria, 503-325-7768, astoriacoffee.co), where you’ll find bags of beans in its vending machine, including a “Goondocks” blend stamped with the image of a pirate flag. Over at Silver Salmon Grille (1105 Commercial St., Astoria, 503-338-6640, silversalmongrille.com), the rotating cooler holds grab-and-go items like blackened steak tips and its award-winning clam chowder. Finally, Inferno Lounge (77 11th St., Suite G, Astoria, 503-741-3401, infernoloungeastoria.com) is the only business on this list that keeps its machine inside, and for good reason: Many of the Magic Mystery Box prizes are X-rated.
Take a tour on a tugboat
After an admirable half-century of service on the often-treacherous waters of the Columbia, Arrow No. 2 could’ve ended up in retirement as a hokey roadside attraction. From 1962 to 2012, the 53-foot tug successfully carried bar and river pilots as they completed some 250,000 transfers to vessels in order to take control of navigation to and from sea. But when a newer boat was finally brought into service, some proposed hauling the Arrow to a traffic roundabout, turning the mighty tug into a mediocre landmark. That idea never came to fruition, and the vessel is back in her rightful home, now ferrying sightseers up and down the Lower Columbia for Arrow Tugboat & Tour Company (503-791-6250, arrowtug.com) in a second act. The vessel departs from Skipanon Marina in Warrenton and heads up to the former naval base at Tongue Point before turning around. Capt. Mark Schächer, who restored the Arrow to her former glory, will fill in the waterfront’s gaps in history and ensure this truly stays a three-hour tour by safely navigating the always-changing swells. As you charge through the crisscrossing waves and spot everything from the remnants of wooden shipyard railways to the shallows where the vestiges of a horse barn are visible at low tide, it becomes apparent that this is the most authentic way to take in the port city’s rich history.
Bark back at a sea lion
Having survived the undulating white caps, reward yourself with a beer back on land. Buoy (1 8th St., Astoria, 503-325-4540, buoybeer.com) is yet another business that has repurposed a closed cannery. Despite the lack of discarded fish guts, sea lions still congregate under the building, flopping and bellowing for space on the slumbering pile. On nice days, take your tall pour of crackery Czech-style Pilsner to the pier’s railing, where during sunset you can often see an entire raft of them bobbing and begging like a habituated dog.
Fish and chips is a staple on most menus here—even the bowling alley serves battered cod. But if you want to know where the locals go, consult one, or the entire city. Astoria Eats! is a Facebook group devoted to photos of local food porn, and the sheer amount of praise for Ship Out (92351 Lewis and Clark Road, Astoria, 503-468-0373) should motivate a trip to the city’s industrial district. The tiny kitchen turns out sturgeon and halibut with a flaky, soft inside and golden-brown crust that’s so light, it dissolves on the tongue with a funnel cake sweetness. Co-owner Angela Fruehling won’t reveal how the fish is prepped, only saying she’s incredibly picky about the temperature of the oil. Try to unlock the secret as you eat, taking your boat-shaped basket into the greenhouse where visor-wearing grannies are picking through sea-themed wall art and garden décor like antiques hunters.
Visit Chunk’s corner
Old-school bowling alleys are extinct in Portland, which should enhance the importance of preserving those that still exist elsewhere. Lower Columbia Bowl (826 Marine Drive, Astoria, 503-325-3321, lcbowl.com) is home to The Goonies’ greatest moment when Chunk is ripped away from his arcade game by police in pursuit of the Fratelli family. In that moment of excitement, he squeezes strawberry milkshake all over himself and the window. Chunk’s corner now contains a modest shrine along with two maps stuck with pins from Goonies fans who’ve visited from all over the world.
Shake your nightcap
On any given night, at least half the people at Workers are giving their forearms a furious workout by making the Yucca. The vodka-based drink is served in a mason jar and then wrapped in a towel before you are instructed to shake until a frost develops. Originally a rafting drink made in pickle jars that went through turbulent whitewater, yours will end up as either a liquidly spiked lemonade or something more like a Slurpee, depending on level of commitment. Either way, it’s refreshing.
Fill up on food samples
Even in a constant, chilly drizzle, Astorians show up for the Sunday Market (503-440-7168, astoriasundaymarket.com). Sprawled out along three blocks of 12th Street, artists drawn to the city’s bohemian vibe set up tents to sell their wares. Graze through the food booths, or get a more substantial meal in the Wells Fargo parking lot, where chefs in trucks and under E-Z Ups griddle crab cakes and burgers.
Walk to Nirvana
The Astoria Column’s (1 Coxcomb Drive, Astoria, 503-325-2963, astoriacolumn.org) 164 wrought-iron steps remain closed during the pandemic, but Astor Park is open and offers views just as breathtaking as those from the pillar’s observation deck. While most people drive, hiking 1.5 miles up the wooded section of Coxcomb Hill is more rewarding. Along the way, take a junction to the Cathedral Tree, a Sitka spruce that’s said to be over 300 years old. With an oval opening at the base’s gnarled roots, it does resemble a regal throne from which a forest creature might deliver blessings. Continue to ascend to nirvana, where you’ll feel as though you can practically touch the rolling clouds once you reach the clearing.