Freemans, the singular restaurant at the end of the alley that bears its name, is turning ten. For New Yorkers who were here when it opened, that decade has passed very quickly. While its taxidermy-heavy aesthetic has migrated to many establishments across the boroughs, Freemans is now a dignified mainstay. It can be all things to all people: A reliable neighborhood establishment, a destination for tourists, a very smart bar. The atmosphere has been much imitated, but never improved upon.
Freemans is the vision of Taavo Somer, who has influenced the city’s cultural life in many ways. He’s expanded the Freemans empire to a men’s store down the alley from the restaurant, and a barber next door to that. He’s opened other restaurants and bars of his own, and designed even more.
The dining scene has accelerated and intensified since Freemans opened. I started going there and the Rusty Knot (another part of the Taavo empire) years ago, and we became friends. I work with him at the men’s store, Freemans Sporting Club. We sat down recently and talked about the philosophy behind Freemans, what makes a restaurant endure, and the secret behind the famous artichoke dip.
Can you talk about how you found this space at the end of the alley.
I was throwing parties downtown and we originally had a plan for a Halloween party in Brooklyn. I forget the name of it, it was actually across the street from what’s now the Wythe Hotel. I was working for Serge Becker at the time, about 11 years ago. The space wasn’t ready—it was October 7th and we’ve got bands lined up, we’ve got DJs lined up, we’ve got fire-eaters, stilt-walkers, aerialists. We needed a location and Serge felt bad. So he sent me to this place on Chrystie Street, which was two blocks from where I lived. It was a big building, empty, all raw. So I was going to rent the first floor and second floor. [The landlord’s] only requirement was that I used the alley as an entrance. I saw the alley and fell in love with it. It was very moody, very New York. I asked if I could rent the space for a café or bar. He said no to the bar since he lived upstairs. But you could do a café. I had already been working on a business plan for a version of a café. I was helping build and draw the Lever House. That was a very complicated process. So I was trying to design something that was easy to build, and easy to draw. So this was the foil to how Lever House was made.
So what happened to the Halloween party?
We cancelled it and I started working on Freemans right away.
But you didn’t have the idea for a colonial-style interior ahead of time.
No, it happened right after we found the space. It reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe—which is not the right era of colonial America—so I merged it with colonial. It seems very dark and introverted and brooding, it also reminded me of the sparse, puritanical interiors I grew up with in rural Pennsylvania. I was thinking of the first people that came to America. You forget that they had English accents, even though they were Americans—how they were living, in a much more rugged New York area. It was still a frontier space. How wild that must have been. Connected to the old world with a sense of elegance, but the streets are muddy and you have to deal with wilderness. So that contrast was interesting.
So what did you do?
This was in 2003, and I thought I was going to design it and build it myself. I had three jobs basically. I lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment on Second Avenue, so I was saving a lot of money and spending that on the building process. Then eventually I ran out of money. I was throwing these parties with Carlos Quirarte who worked at Selvedge, the Levi’s concept store in Soho. That was an odd meeting area where people would hang out—in a Levi’s store that was 200 square feet. There’s this guy Will Tigertt who would hang out there. I didn’t know him. When I ran out of money Carlos said, “Why don’t you talk to this guy Will?” He said, “I want to do it, I want to be your partner.” He had different skills than I had. He was really into the cocktail culture that was kind of burgeoning at the time. So Will become my partner and we finished [the restaurant]. The first chef, Chloe Osborne, was a consulting chef. I met her at Prune and Café Gitane and Moto. She was a wizard of the electric kitchen. With a hot plate, an oven, and a small refrigerator, she could make dinner for 200 people.
And there were other challenges to opening a restaurant for the first time—didn’t you almost forget to buy plates?
Well, yeah. Chloe was helping with the opening. And the day we were supposed to open, she asked, “Where are all the plates?” And I was like, “Oh right, we’ll need some of those.” And she said, “You don’t really have any idea what you’re doing, do you?” And I said, “No, I really don’t.” So we jumped into a cab and went up to Fishs Eddy and bought plates.
The day we were supposed to open, Chloe asked, “Where are all the plates?” And I was like, “Oh right, we’ll need some of those.”
You were completely new to it all.
I had never even worked in a restaurant. I didn’t come up through the restaurant ranks. I think that’s one of the interesting things about New York. You can come here and break into the restaurant world or break into the fashion world. And the city allows that to happen, which is cool.
A lot of people who come here now don’t remember that when you opened, that’s all you had: a hot plate and an oven. And the restaurant was just one room. What was it like to open a place like that at the end of an alley? You didn’t have a PR firm. It’s very different than how we think of opening a restaurant today, with its soft opening, preview menu, and strategic opening party.
Right. The Internet existed, of course, but you didn’t have all these blogs. The food scene was very much word of mouth. Not everyone wanted to be a celebrity chef. It was a more naïve moment in the city. As soon as we opened word spread—we were packed almost instantly, and we didn’t even have a full-time chef. Ovens were burning out; they were so hot and there was so much food in there, we’d have to replace them constantly. There was no ventilation, so it was really hot. It was hot for diners since it was an open kitchen. So we were like, “We need to improve this.” So when the next door space opened up, we took it. The landlord said, “Oh, you’re doing well,” and took the opportunity to try to fleece us. We put in a real kitchen and a gas cooking line and hood, and we hired a real chef, Jean Adamson, who then went on to open Vinegar Hill House. Jean was here for two or three years.
Do the things we associate with the restaurant—artichoke dip, a certain way of American cooking—were these there from the beginning? Or did it develop along the way?
There are eight or ten dishes that are still on the menu that are on the original menu. A lot of that is because those are the most popular dishes, which we developed with Chloe: The cheddar toast, Devils on Horseback, the artichoke dip. Part of the concept was to design the interior, the food, the staff, to have a consistent atmosphere. The idea was like designing a person. You don’t want somebody too good looking but with no sense of humor. You don’t want somebody too funny but just annoying to be around. The idea was to make the place well-rounded, like a B-minus student. You’re pleasant, everybody wants to be around you, but you’re not the head of the class and modeling agencies aren’t trying to hire you. That was the goal.
The idea was to make the place well-rounded, like a B-minus student.
Did it surprise you that some of these things became so popular? It’s funny that artichoke dip became something that people order when they come here for the first time.
It’s a surprise in some ways. I think the thing we’ve done that some people don’t do is stick to it. There’s a whole community of people who are invested in Freemans who strive for that consistency and that longevity.
You also ended up expanding the space upstairs.
People wanted to rent us out for weddings or parties, so we made a whole event space that’s totally independent from the downstairs.
So that’s the Blue Room and the Red Room and the Library. And your offices are up here. What about the cocktails? That’s part of being well-rounded, I guess.
That’s Will’s passion. The idea was that the cocktails would be good enough to compete with straight-up bars. That was a new thing at the time. Now you can’t open a restaurant with lousy cocktails. In the beginning it was a little rough because some of the bartenders were very ambitious, and it would take a long time to get your drinks. We’ve gradually figured out a balance between more labor-intensive cocktails and less intensive ones. Over the years, a lot of great bartenders have come through here and gone on to open their own bars.
I’m always surprised how good the wine list is here. It’s a very forward-thinking, with a lot of natural wines from small producers who don’t rely on a lot of intervention. It’s a great list, but you’re not really known for that.
That is really Will’s area of expertise. He likes buying wine and he’s gotten into making wine. The wine list he’s put together is pretty awesome.
Freemans has been very imitated. How do you respond to that? Are you flattered? Are you pissed off when you see taxidermy everywhere?
Serge [Becker] always told me not to worry about that. If you’re creative, you’ll try to have new ideas. I think of it as nomadic design. You have to keep moving.
It’s amazing to look back at the other restaurants that opened that your—Spotted Pig, Momofuku. A lot has changed since then. You probably couldn’t open this restaurant now.
No, we probably couldn’t. Even a few years ago would be hard. You have to have institutional money behind you, from where real estate has gone, even in the outer boroughs—it’s crazy how expensive everything has gotten. Chefs are bigger than DJs—you can be a free agent, like a basketball player. That’s the evolution of restaurants. Where the chef goes, that’s what really matters, not the brick-and-mortar location. Restaurants are getting smaller and smaller. And I think there are going to be micro-restaurants that are super-specialized, with nomadic chefs.
Didn’t you tell me once that the recipe for the artichoke dip came from the side of a Hellman’s jar?
Yeah, that’s right. It goes back to the Loring Café in Minneapolis, where we’ve both been. I went there a lot and I learned a lot by watching them. I remember the first five or six recipes with Chloe—well, first off, she was disgusted that I wanted to do this. Then she said, “I am not making this.” The first six iterations, she was trying to make it more artisanal and gourmet, and I said, “No, less artichoke, more mayo. No big chunks of artichoke.” Eventually she got pretty frustrated, and went, in her mind, too far, and it was just perfect.
I think there are going to be micro-restaurants that are super-specialized, with nomadic chefs.
There are some other traditional things on the menu that are very reassuring, like Bananas Foster.
I didn’t even know what it was called. When we’d go camping as a family in Canada, my mom would make something she called bananas flambé. It was a way of tricking the kids to eat old bananas that had turned brown by day three of the camping trip. She would cut them up with brown sugar and put some ice cream with them. Chloe was asking me what I liked to eat from my childhood and that always stuck with me. A lot of the things we tried to do was pull things from our memories about what comforting food can be.
It’s interesting how restaurants age. Ideally, the place becomes part of the neighborhood. Freemans has a different feeling than a lot of restaurants—there’s also a men’s store and a barber. So there’s a different cultural position than other restaurants.
One thing I learned from the Loring is creating the place that is open for 12 or 13 hours a day, so it can be a place for the neighborhood to use. I can meet for a drink or coffee or lunch. It’s not about exclusivity, it’s an open place for people. It’s used by everybody—by tourists, by locals, by famous people. It’s fun to see young people come in from Japan or wherever in the Midwest, and they take photos of the place and order a lemonade and take off.
It’s good when a place evolves, like Prune or Balthazar, or even Roberta’s. You can fool people for six months, but when the halo of newness disappears you just have a restaurant that was cool six months ago. There’s a real danger for fashion and restaurants, which attract a group of people that just migrates to whatever is the latest thing. I rarely go to a restaurant until it’s been open for six months. I want it to find its footing, then the crowd subsides and you get a much better sense of what it’s really like.
There’s a trap. You’re either a maker or a consumer. A lot of time there are pure consumers. You’re bombarded with what’s new to consume. Maybe I should be at that bar. Maybe I’m wearing the wrong shoes. It’s this constant chasing this thing that you’ll never find. If you make your own thing, you’ll have a sense of stability. You’re chasing your own design.
I like the restaurant in the day. The light is so nice.
My feeling is that a restaurant should look good in the day. It’s easy at night, just turn down the dimmer. I tried to design it more like an apartment or somewhere residential. All the materials should be genuine and pretty in daylight.
And it should be said that you live upstairs.
Well, people say you can’t escape. But when I had a job-job, I remember waking up on Sunday and feeling depressed. As soon as this developed and took form, I’ve never felt like I’ve really worked. There is no escape, it’s my life. Upstairs, downstairs, upstate…it’s the alley. It’s everything.
My feeling is that a restaurant should look good in the day. All the materials should be genuine and pretty in daylight.
But you haven’t recreated Freemans for all your projects. The Rusty Knot is very different from ISA, and they’re both very different than Freemans. It’s not like Beach House, which makes a really good record and then makes another one that’s very similar. You’re more into making concept albums.
That’s true, but I love Beach House.
I love them, too. I actually interviewed them a million years ago when they drove to South by Southwest in a minivan.
But yes, I sometimes think I make it too hard on myself. It might be nice not to reinvent the wheel. I was just thinking about the FedEx or the Five Year Old Test—it’s like the bullshit test. If you don’t know that you’re supposed to like the thing and you just inherently like it, whether you’re the FedEx guy or a five year old, that’s a good sign that you’ve made something that has real depth to it—a real experience that has longevity and can even cross cultures.