Populist Prize
A watering hole for the masses. But free beer? We wish.

Populist Prize
A watering hole for the masses—but free beer? We wish.

THE SCENE: This prime piece of Wayne real estate formerly occupied by Vivo Enoteca was empty for more than a year and a half. Then sometime last summer, a metamorphosis became apparent. Fast forward to late September, and Freehouse was born. Where Vivo was dark and modish, Freehouse (above) is bright and open. Distinct features such as the oddly shaped (and placed) restroom (blending in better now as a British phone booth) and the center staircase are still eye-catching, but now patrons get TV sports in lieu of foreign movies shown on the wall.

After a few visits, it became clear that Freehouse’s interior metamorphosis was a work in progress—one that now makes sense. Walls on one side of the restaurant are blanketed in a warm pumpkin hue while the other side is white; an interior portico and onyx ceiling finish off the contrast nicely. An MG painted in a Union Jack design (think Austin Powers) is parked atop a phone both, adding a touch of whimsy.

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Oak bars flank opposite sides of the building’s two floors. Upstairs, stainless steel sconces, glazed domes and overhead lights with dimmers allow Freehouse to change up the vibe with ease. For dining, there are comfy booths and cozy two-tops, straightforward in looks with natural wood and vinyl seats.

The unobstructed expanse of windows along the sidewalk enhances Freehouse’s convivial attitude—and Wayne’s overall curb appeal. Great if you’re looking to see whether your friends arrived before you.

THE FOOD: Ardmore’s Brian “Chef” Duffy (Shanachie Irish Pub) served as Freehouse’s menu consultant, helping the owners devise a roster of traditional British dishes from Welsh rarebit to roast beef to Yorkshire pudding. The saucy terminology—“bangers and mash,” “bubble and squeak,” “bangers in a bun,” “chicken ticklers”—is a fun read, and the menu also features gastro-pub fare: New World fish and chips; blackened or broiled salmon; crab cakes; a portobello sandwich with roasted red peppers, spinach, tomato and provolone cheese (pictured above); fried calamari; and healthful salads. More typical pub grub includes fish and chips, English onion soup, burgers, wings, wraps and grilled chicken or roast beef sandwiches.

The crab cakes were substantial, packed with sweet-tasting backfin and no filler. The rémoulade sauce, though, was meek. The accompanying wild rice and medley of broccoli and cauliflower benefited from precision preparation—soft (but not mushy) vegetables, crunchy rice.

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The sizable blackened Union Jack Salmon outshone everything we’d sampled, with its flaky coating and moist interior cooked a fish version of medium rare. A dollop of tangy-sweet Major Grey’s chutney added depth and texture to the dish.

Freehouse’s burgers are made with fresh-ground sirloin and cooked over an open-fire grill, imparting a robust, gamey essence and fleshy texture. Moist enough to go without condiments, each messy bite is packed with rich beef flavor. ‘Doneness’ was also not an issue—medium-rare is brown toward the edges with a squashy, rosy core, but not raw.

The mussels were plump and sweet. Steamed with hard cider, tomatoes and shallots, the dominant taste was more sea than cider, but with a pleasant smokiness. The shepherd’s pie—made with ground beef, not lamb—was bland, but it perked up with salt and pepper. Enhancing the mashed potato ‘roof’ with butter, salt and garlic would be an easy improvement.

THE EXPERIENCE: An equal-opportunity mindset is a Freehouse strong suit. No one will feel out of place here. Weekday lunch is a mix of business and pleasure; Saturdays and Sundays are big with families and weekend warriors seeking culinary comfort and a hangover remedy with a side of football, hockey or golf. The unpredictable late-night crowd ranges from young (20s-30s) professionals to 50-somethings.

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Freehouse staff are working under the accurate assumption that customers are well versed on premium beer: Variety comes in the form of 12 draught beers and 32 bottled. On tap from England are Boddington’s, Fuller’s ESB, Newcastle, Guinness and Strongbow hard cider. Three varieties of Samuel Smith are available in bottles. Bartenders don’t discriminate though—you can get a decent Cosmo, Manhattan and Bloody Mary, along with highbrow scotches such as Lagabulin 16-year single-malt scotch-whiskey.

Three visits and a phone conversation revealed a pending chef change and emphasized owners’ efforts to evaluate and improve upon the quality of the food. One noticeable change was portion size —the first round of onion rings ordered was far daintier than the second.

Service at Freehouse definitely comes with a smile. There were a few minor glitches: We had to request water three times and waited a while for a check during one visit. But for the most part, customers are front and center on the staff’s radar screen.

THE SKINNY: Aptly situated between Christopher’s and The Wooden Iron, Freehouse bridges the gap between youthful family restaurant and older, well-heeled dining experience. Owned by a group of investors who prefer to keep a low profile, it emulates the original concept of a neighborhood pub. And while they may not identify themselves, their presence is strong. You can bet an owner is either behind the bar or on the floor keeping an eye on things.

The staff is trying its best to distinguish Freehouse from the nearby competition (i.e. Great American Pub), but chances are the place is attracting a similar clientele. What sets Freehouse apart is its British menu and spacious, bright interior. But while its premium beer selection, comfortable seating, casual vibe, HDTV, loud music (downstairs) and bona fide pub grub fit nicely with Wayne’s affable restaurant scene, its unique factor needs to become clearer.

If you’re going with a pub theme, do it up 100 percent. An authentic, fun menu is a step in the right direction, but don’t stop there. British memorabilia—royalty, musicians, flags, even beer—would add even more fun at Freehouse. We’ll always take substance over fluff, but with the influx of so many new restaurants on the Main Line—and given the industry trend toward increased theatrics and polish—packaging should never be overlooked.

A dart room was rumored to be in Freehouse’s future, but it seems a new private dining room with a chef’s tasting table won out. Priorities, priorities.


Location: 110 N. Wayne Ave., Wayne; (610) 688-0800, waynefreehouse.com.
Cuisine: English pub fare.
Prices: $5.95-$7.95 (sandwiches and burgers), $13.95-$18.95 (entrées).
Attire: Casual.
Atmosphere: Low-key neighborhood bar; friendly, relaxed feel with bursts of rowdy fun on game day and weekends.
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily; bar open until 2 a.m.
Extras: Six flat-screen TVs; live music on Thursdays, DJ on Friday; happy hour 4-6 p.m. Monday-Friday; kids’ menu.


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