Somer further amplified the mystique surrounding Freemans—as well as himself—when he opened Freemans Sporting Club, a store at the entrance of the alley that is an extension of the restaurant’s rustic, self-consciously masculine spirit. Inside, you can get a haircut and straight-razor shave at the old-school barbershop set up in back, or make an appointment to have Somer design you a $2,000 bespoke suit, or browse his menswear collection, which is composed of rugged clothes (bulky flannel shirts, thick wool jackets) that look like something lumberjacks in the nineteenth century wore. The store opened in 2006, around the same time a lot of young men downtown, formerly a fey, smooth-faced species, starting growing beards and dressing like lumberjacks.
There has always been a variety of unofficial style chieftains—nightclub owners, restaurateurs, actors, musicians, hoteliers—who seem hardwired to influence the ever-shifting cravings of downtown. Keith McNally’s obsessive retooling of the French bistro (the Odeon, Balthazar, Pastis, Schiller’s Liquor Bar) has prospered for nearly 30 years. If Chloë Sevigny started walking around in a potato sack, it wouldn’t take long before every other girl on the Lower East Side needed their potato sack. André Balazs (the Mercer Hotel) and Amy Sacco (Bungalow 8) created slick, unapologetically ostentatious environments that spawned the irrepressible gaudiness of the meatpacking district. Somer’s aesthetic is different, built around the idea that rougher edges and cheaper materials can have an unexpected power if carefully arranged: a world where a knowing wink goes a lot further than a bitchy sneer. He is drawn to contradictions—a T-shirt at a department store! A bastion of virility in a metrosexual breeding ground!—in a way that appeals to an audience that wants to have it high and low. Eating at Freemans is not cheap—dinner for two can easily run to $100—but it feels cheap, which to a certain kind of New Yorker is an even better, guilt-assuaging deal.
Freemans has made Somer a celebrity in the restaurant world, increasingly sought-after as a designer and consultant by established personalities looking for that ever-elusive commodity known as edge. Sean MacPherson and Eric Goode, the pioneering design team behind numerous downtown institutions (the Park, the Waverly Inn, and the Maritime Hotel), recently hired Somer to help design Gemma, the Italian restaurant in the Bowery Hotel. (“He’s going to hate me for saying this, but he’s kind of become the patron saint of hipsters,” says MacPherson. “They follow him, and he rejects it. The more he rejects it, the more he becomes it.”) Somer welcomes high-profile collaborations like this, though he does so with a caveat. “People think, Freemans is cool—let’s get the Freemans guy to design something,” Somer says. “Most of the time they just want me to kind of remake Freemans, which I refuse to do.” To further articulate his philosophy, he turns to an architectural metaphor, something he is prone to do: “It’s kind of like the fifties, when Mies van der Rohe built a glass building. At the time it was totally unexpected, and really cool because the mirrored surface reflected all the old brick-masonry buildings around it. But then it was kind of weird, you know, when all buildings are suddenly mirror and glass. It’s that moment when the different thing becomes the same thing— to me that’s when you know it’s time to go somewhere else.”
Somer grew up in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, a town of 3,170, where his parents settled after emigrating from Estonia. “Basically, my parents could not have made me more weird, and set me up for total and absolute ridicule for the first twenty years of my life,” Somer says. “There was the name, which made no sense. When I told people in school that it was Estonian, they were like, ‘Oh, you’re Russian, you’re a communist.’ My lunches were packed with liverwurst sandwiches—like, I didn’t even know what half my lunches were.” Somer took an early interest in drawing, and by the time he was 13 he had chosen Donald Judd, the Minimalist sculptor, as his hero.
After college, Somer moved to New York to work with Steven Holl, the architect; he figured he had at last found a world that would make sense and in which he could thrive. But he quickly grew restless and quit after six months. Needing a job, Somer contacted Serge Becker, a partner in numerous downtown mainstays (La Esquina, the Box), whom he had met through someone at Holl’s firm, and asked if he could work as a busboy at Joe’s Pub, which Becker co-owns. Becker thought that absurd, and instead asked Somer to manage the construction of a new restaurant opening in Lever House, the iconic midtown skyscraper. Somer was reluctant—wasn’t this just more architecture?—but he figured it would be a six-month gig at most. The project took two and a half years. “Maybe it was just watching Serge do what he does,” says Somer, “but for whatever reason I started to fantasize about my own restaurant.”