Reign Free Launches Bear's Lair Tavern

Offering French lentils and chorizo-cheese fries, she wants locals to feel at home.


Images by Kristan Lawson

We talked with Reign Free during the grand-opening party for her new restaurant, Bear's Lair Tavern, on the UC Berkeley campus.

Occupying the same space formerly occupied by its longtime predecessor, the Bear's Lair, it's on the ground floor of Eshleman Hall, facing Bancroft Way and mere steps from both Zellerbach Hall and the school's Recreational Sports Facility — making this an obvious post-show, post-workout, post-game refreshment destination.

But the space has been modernized: Its monumental concrete columns, floor-to-ceiling windows, vibrant plants, communal tables, outdoor beer-garden patio, huge flat-screen TV, honey-blonde wooden bar-top, and other details lend it a palatially industrial flair. 

"My vision ... is to bring the whole community here," said Free, an award-winning entrepreneur who founded Oakland's The RedDoor Catering company — which has organized special events for Facebook, Google, the City of Oakland, Clif Bar, and other prestigious clients — and now helms the BLT with her friend David Lawrence, a celebrated chef whose past projects have included Bark Barbecue and 1300 Fillmore.

Free said that while conceptualizing the tavern, the pair put a lot of research into the neighborhood — what it lacked, what it needed, and what locals might want.

"The old Bear's Lair is gone. We all know that," said Free, who with Lawrence created a gastropub-style menu. Honoring Lawrence's British roots is a Ploughman's Plate featuring a Scotch egg; more Berkeley-style offerings include chorizo-cheese fries; Impossible Burgers; exquisitely chewy-crusted pizzas; gingered French green lentils; roasted brown-sugar-brined chicken leg; mac-and-cheese; fried-chicken sandwiches; black-eyed-pea hummus; and sambal chili-honey chicken wings with creamy wasabi dipping sauce. 

"But now people can come here and still have a great time," Free said. "They can treat this space as their home."

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