Free House is named for a damn horse. A solid horse, a thoroughbred and champion of minor races, though he kept coming up just shy in Triple Crown races. Still, that horse made more in stud than any horse in California. He was a likable horse. A hell of a horse.
And Free House is a hell of a bar. It ain't a party bar, and it ain't a dumb show pony: The décor is somewhere between fashionably minimalist and perplexing, with Abe Lincoln over there in the corner staring balefully out on the room with no whites in his eyes. Little plants grow in test tubes hung from the wall, above an impossibly dense series of coat hooks. One of the plants is a failed experiment and didn't grow.
But it feels good here, the food is good, and the cocktails are unshowily stellar—thoroughbred, as the menu says. The Calcutta ($9), a mix of black rum, Campari, lime, bitters and sparkling dry cider, doesn't announce itself except in having the good sense to balance sweetness with tannin, acid and bitterness to become a drink as reliable as the sturdy wood of Free House's 15-foot benches.
The bar is a neutral-painted box of low light and balance in all things, including the ownership split between Olympic Provisions' Martin Schwartz and Victory Bar chef Eric Moore. So on the chalkboard bar menu, there is richly smoked mac and cheese, and plenty of meat, and an option for meat in the mac and cheese. However, the undisputed culinary winner is a banh mi made with pâté, which you forgive for being a ridiculous $9 banh mi because it tastes like at least $11. Maybe even $11.50.
Really, Free House is the sort of place you don't notice until you check the time. And then you think, holy shit, it's midnight already. But your belly is full, and your head is clear, and when you wake up in the morning, you are ready to run another race.