The new year brought a new bar to a basement in Washington's Chinatown neighborhood. To enter, you must descend a staircase and pass a large mural of the Chesapeake Bay, an indication of what to expect inside.
Opened on Wednesday by Brian and Hilarey Leonard, Free State is a bar that draws inspiration from Maryland, from its nautical decor to its selection of beer and snacks. The 1,700-square-foot bar, located at 501B G St. NW, has a capacity of about 80, Hilarey Leonard said.
This is Hilarey and Brian's second bar. They are also partners at Lost & Found in D.C.'s Shaw neighborhood.
Brian Leonard, Hilarey's husband, is a University of Maryland, College Park alum and a native of Aberdeen. He's "a huge Ravens and O's fan," Hilarey Leonard said, and the two often make the trip north for games.
"He always said he wanted to do something local," said Hilarey Leonard, who grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. "We love going to Baltimore. … We love hanging out at the bars up there."
Maryland's influence is apparent from the bar's design, which features decorative nods to Chesapeake Bay lighthouses, the Bay Bridge and Maryland's beaches in its booths. There are maps of Baltimore and the waterways of Maryland. Hooks in the bathrooms are designed like crabs.
The Maryland love applies to the bar program, too. Beers by Hampden's Union Craft Brewing and Cambridge's RAR Brewing are currently included on Free State's 14 draft lines. The cocktail list features an orange crush and a house shot of Viryta, a honey whiskey concoction Brian Leonard recalled drinking in Baltimore.
Free State lacks a kitchen but patrons can bring food to the bar, she said. They also have Maryland-themed snacks like Utz chips, Dolle's salt water taffy, Fisher's Popcorn and Berger Cookies.
While Maryland is an obvious source of inspiration, Hilarey Leonard said the aim of Free State is to celebrate the microbreweries and small-batch distilleries operating in Washington, Maryland and Virginia. (Products from Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and North Carolina are also sold.)
"We wanted to emphasize small business — not the giants of beer or liquor or anything like that," she said. "We're trying to get people to drink local."
Free State is open 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Thursday and Sunday; 4 p.m.-3 a.m. Friday-Saturday.