Freehouse’s Cognitive Dissonance

Fancy entrées coexist with a beer bar at the UC Berkeley student hangout.

Freehouse is, depending on whom you ask, a New American restaurant, a pool hall, a beer bar, a pub, and/or a nice-ish cocktail place. It is primarily patronized by students and is located mere steps from frat row in a breathtaking, high-ceilinged, lattice-windowed, wood-paneled building that has, at various times, contained a dorm, a Presbyterian Church, and a schmancy restaurant. It is neither a house nor is anything about it particularly free. Freehouse, it should be clear, is a very confusing place.

Until last winter, Freehouse was Adagia, a sure-but-staid cloth-napkiny farm-to-table-type place that had apparently been seeing stagnating sales for a while, until its owners decided to close it down and recreate the place as a sort of catchall student hangout. The result is exactly like what you would expect would happen when you graft a college bar onto a nice restaurant. The walls are still wood-paneled, but papered with advertisements for “$3 Trumer Tuesdays!” and game-day specials. When you walk in, you are taken both by the feeling that the space is way too nice for a college bar, but also with the abstract, acute understanding that Freehouse is for them, not you: When I started asking our waiter about the place’s demographics, he asked, not unkindly, if I was “doing a survey for soc class.”

On a Wednesday night, a pair of Ugg-booted and baseball-capped students quiz each other on chemical reactions near the roaring fireplace as, a few feet away, outside on the fire-pitted outdoor patio, a threesome of professors dig into a painstakingly presented cassoulet. Someone notes excitedly that this place looks like Hogwarts. A white-haired man walks in and leaves almost immediately after, a look on his face that can only be described as “befuddled.” The music is unobtrusive and mid-tempo, not unlike what you’d find at most upscale and upscale-ish places, but it is turned up to conversation-halting, decidedly collegiate heights. There are flat-screen TVs, backlit liquors, a pool table, and chairs upholstered with a somewhat disconcerting fuzzy animal print, but then again: an $18 pork chop entrée, a gas fireplace, those windows. As I write this, it’s been nearly two weeks since I went there, and I still cannot for the life of me figure out if I like the place.

In a review of Freehouse’s food, our former restaurant critic, Jesse Hirsch, aptly likened the experience to a “cocktail party in a church”; Thrillist was apparently so taken by cognitive dissonance that it invented a (terrible) new word for the place: “bar-taurant.” Yelp reviewers, meanwhile, have called the place variously “cozy,” ideal for a “business casual meeting,” and “a good place to catch a beer, while watching a game.” Freehouse, you see, contains multitudes.

The confusion continues. The beer menu is well-thought out, markedly highbrow, and excellent across the board, with some sixteen microbrews on tap and several more in the bottle, but the wine list is tiny and the cocktails are unequivocally terrible — poorly mixed and possessing of that unmistakable grenadiney-sweetness that seems to only exist in college bars. The service is either maddeningly slow or head-spinningly quick, but seemingly never in between. All told, Freehouse’s management cares either too much or not enough, but it is pretty much completely impossible to tell. This is Freehouse in a nutshell: Neither here nor there nor this nor that; everything and everywhere, but also, weirdly, nothing and nowhere. By the way, I hated sociology in college.


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