A few years ago, during a complicated period in his life, Taavo Somer fell in love with an ice machine. It was located in the back of Joe’s Bar, a dive off Avenue B that looks like any number of bars in the East Village: pressed-tin ceiling, filthy linoleum floors, neon beer signs flickering in the window. Somer and his friends would meet at Joe’s regularly, for all the reasons people gravitate to such places. The beer was cheap, as was the whiskey. And the crowd was an appealing blend of self-aware twentysomethings with bachelor’s degrees and wizened old men with drinking problems. As for the ice machine—well, most of Joe’s patrons probably noticed it only when it interfered with their pool game: a cumbersome hunk of faded steel that would not be out of place behind a suburban gas station.
To Somer, however, the ice machine was an object of mysterious beauty. He’d moved to New York to be an architect, and although he’d quit the profession almost immediately, he retained an architect’s compulsive tendency to deconstruct interiors, to take them apart in his head and figure out how they worked. “That ice machine was just kind of awesomely utilitarian,” he says. “The inner workings were right in front of you, not hidden away in some super-refined way.” Somer soon found himself filling drawing pads with studies of dive bars—detailed renderings of fictional haunts where he imagined his friends would hang out. The places he drew looked like Joe’s, with one crucial difference: Everything accidental was now orchestrated, the ice machine a piece of the design. “You don’t know it, but that’s what makes a place like that so comfortable,” says Somer. “That’s why you want to come back every night.”
From someone else this would sound absurd, though coming from Somer you might suddenly think: Yes, of course, the ice machine at Joe’s Bar, I get it! He has that effect on people. Years ago, for instance, he started turning old T-shirts inside out and writing phrases on them, weird little expressions like my girlfriend’s out of town, or i’ve got coke left let’s go back to my place, which Somer, who is from rural Pennsylvania, once described as being inspired by how “disposable” everyone seemed to be in the city. Whenever he went outside wearing one of the shirts, he would be approached by people asking where they could buy one, and soon they were selling briskly at Barneys New York for $88. That was cool for a while. And then it wasn’t. “At the time, I was like one of maybe six T-shirt lines,” says Somer. “But then there were like 400 T-shirt lines. It just went bananas, and I was like, ‘Fuck this—I’m out.’ ” Something similar happened when he got the idea to throw a weekly party at Pussycat Lounge, a seedy strip club in the financial district. Back then no one was partying in the financial district, but soon people were flocking there: chain-smoking models, aspiring screenwriters, members of the Strokes. The parties were eventually written up in the Times as evidence of a “new bohemia,” which to Somer was evidence that they were getting old.
In March, Somer opened up a bar-restaurant in the West Village called the Rusty Knot, which he describes as a “nautical-themed bar that maybe in ten years will be a dive bar.” This is not exactly false: The beer is cheap, the floors linoleum, the bar made of bamboo, the walls covered in maritime trinkets. Then again, the Rusty Knot is also a place where you can order a $22 “scorpion bowl” cocktail (for two people, with two straws) while snacking on a pretzel dog cooked by a James Beard award winner—a bar, in short, where the ice machine sitting next to the pool table is fully aware of its powers. Unlike Somer’s past projects, the Rusty Knot gained a loyal following before anyone had ever been. While it was still under construction, the blog Eater.com christened it “the hottest place on the planet,” a post that inspired one reader to offer the following assessment of Somer’s peculiar talent for steering the sensibility of downtown to meet his eclectic personal tastes: “Oh dear sweet jesus. nautical? nautical?!?!?! for the next three or four years am i now going to be forced to endure dive bells and anchors at every other restaurant that opens? thanks, taavo.”
Somer, 35, is widely called Taavo even by people who’ve never met him. He is stockily built, handsome in a vaguely gnomish way, and carries himself with a disarming air of sarcasm: rarely smiling, but rarely serious. These days, he is best known as the co-owner of Freemans, a retro-Colonial tavern hidden up an alley off Rivington Street that has been compared to the films of David Lynch and the writing of Dave Eggers, both in the mood it creates (a whimsical, idealized past that could only exist in the present) and zealotry of its imitators. When Freemans opened, in 2004, it was an aesthetic oddity—the rough-hewn wood floors, the peeling oil portraits, the antique taxidermy hanging from distressed plaster walls—though it wasn’t long before it became the template for much of the current look and feel of downtown. Go to PDT (short for “Please Don’t Tell”), the pseudo-speakeasy entered via a phone booth in Crif Dogs, a St. Marks hot-dog counter (not quite an alley, but close!), and ask yourself what inspired the owners to hang all that taxidermy on the walls. Or visit Kingswood, a restaurant in the West Village that also has prominent taxidermy and poached a former host of Freemans. Cross the East River into Williamsburg for dinner at Lodge—the name speaks for itself—and have a drink afterward at Hotel Delmano, a new cocktail lounge that always looks closed from the outside (gated front door, hidden side entrance) and inside could be mistaken for a back room of Freemans. And then there is Bobo, which occupies an entire brownstone on West 10th Street—a variation on Freemans’s DIY exclusivity that’s on full display a few blocks north, at the Beatrice Inn, as well as its Tribeca offshoot, Smith & Mills, which not long ago opened inside a former horse stable.