Monday marked the grand opening of Liberty Lounge and the beginning of a new life for owner Jenna Hill-Higgs. After nearly 20 years working as a public school teacher, Hill-Higgs decided in early 2020 to renovate the recently shuttered 515 Bar on the Near Southside and transform it into a safe and inclusive space. The governor’s lengthy and ongoing shutdown delayed Liberty Lounge’s opening, but the philosophy behind the bar hasn’t changed.
“I want to create a community,” Hill-Higgs said several weeks ago when I first visited the watering hole. “This is a place that is safe and where you know that you matter and are heard. There are so many adults who feel lost and disconnected. I don’t care if you come in and say, ‘Can I just get water? I’ve had a crap day.’ The whimsy logo outside, the bright colors, they convey that this is where you can relax.”
The recent loosening of TABC laws now allows certain bars, like Liberty Lounge, to reopen if they offer food. On a recent visit, the parking lot was full, and, although capacity was strictly limited, I gained a sense of what Liberty Lounge is all about.
“I’m glad you got here in time to see the leak,” Hill-Higgs said with a laugh as a small-but-steady pour of water from an AC unit streamed into two trashcans in the middle of the room.
Hills-Higgs was busy. As she poured several mixed drinks, I asked her how she felt. Her reply, an unbridled laugh, captured the mix of joy, fatigue, and anxiety that understandably accompanies any bar opening during a pandemic.
“I want to make sure everyone is safe,” she said as she cobbled the shot glasses together and brought them to the back patio.
I ordered the Liberty Lounge Punch, a frothy mix of orange-flavored vodka that’s blended with cranberry and pineapple juice and served on the rocks. The cocktail was smooth and mildly sweet, highlighted by pineapple and no discernable trace of vodka.
Liberty Lounge exudes an effortless swagger. The front wall boasts a funky blue, red, and yellow mural that reads, “Wild, Brave, & Free.” Georgie Parker crafted the bar’s 1970s-esque branding (think: curvy serif fonts). The artwork (prints, photos, paintings) in the red-hued indoor space is tied to Black Lives Matter and other progressive or reform-minded movements. Creating a sense of community and empowering women top Hill-Higgs’ goals for the Near Southside business. The bar owner was raised by a loving lesbian couple, she told me. Her career in public school education has further taught her to appreciate the struggles that can hit people at any age.
The bar offerings, the proprietor added, closely resemble those found at MASS, the music venue owned by her husband, Ryan Higgs. Six beer taps, assorted liquor options, and canned beer will round out Liberty Lounge’s offerings. Nearby Pizza Bar None will offer slices of pie that can be ordered via an iPad, Hill-Higgs added.
Liberty Lounge also offers contactless payments through the use of a smartphone app that communicates to the bar’s point of sale systems.
“You can download this app onto your phone,” she said. “I’ll come get your order. Say you are ready to go. You open the app and pay right then. I don’t touch your credit card.”
Once certain financial benchmarks are met, the first-time bar owner said she has the goal of offering her staff health insurance and a living wage, the minimum income needed to meet basic needs. Texas’ $7.25 minimum wage (which can be as little as $2.13 for bartenders) leaves workers relying on the sometimes uneven kindness of strangers.
After my first chat with Hill-Higgs several weeks ago, it was clear that she has a big heart, especially for people who may be marginalized by society or who simply feel like outsiders.
“I know that I should be frightened, especially with all the chaos that the world is in,” she said. “I love my community. I feel like I have a voice here. I want to create the world that I want to live in.”
This story has been updated to reflect the proper spelling of the artist’s last name
515 S Jennings Av, FW. 682-730-0915.