He found himself spending a lot of time at Cafe Gitane, a bistro on Mott Street, where he developed an intense relationship with its electric oven that echoed his earlier affair with the ice machine at Joe’s. “I would go there just to drink coffee and kind of study it,” says Somer. “They just had this little electric oven, which I thought was the most ingenious thing ever. I would count how many covers it was doing, I would calculate how much money they were making, and somewhere in there I put together a business plan for this fictional restaurant.” The plan sat in a drawer for a few years, mixed in with the dive-bar sketches, until it was resurrected during the fall of 2003. That’s when Somer decided he wanted to throw an event on Halloween, something massive involving flame-eaters and stilt-walkers, for which he required a space larger than Pussycat Lounge. Becker introduced him to the owner of a building on Chrystie Street, a guy named Arthur whose only requirement was that people enter through the alley to avoid crowds’ building out front. Somer had never known New York to have any alleys, and when he saw the space his imagination took flight. “I immediately started thinking about the Founding Fathers, about the 1700s and early 1800s,” he says. “I saw this masculine, sort of mid-1700s guy, but someone who you’d want to go on a road trip with, you know? I wanted there to be an element of primitivism in terms of the rustic quality of things, and a heartiness with the food. I think those early settlers are interesting. They had this idea of the elegance and the craftsmanship of the Old World, but they had to deal with the griminess of the New World.” He pauses. “Anyway, I immediately thought about my business plan that I had sitting around, and I asked Arthur, ‘You know, would you consider if I put a restaurant in here?’ ”
Somer 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.
Taavo and his partner, William Tigertt, opened the restaurant with a budget of $70,000—a preposterously low sum in New York, where even small, seemingly nondescript restaurants tend to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Somer’s talent at keeping costs low, fueled by necessity (“Contrary to what many think, I have no trust fund”) and honed as an architect (“I understand materials”), is something that clearly makes him proud. “People walk into Freemans and assume we must be a bunch of rich kids goofing off,” he says. “Either that or they think it’s a total sham, like there’s a Fortune 500 company behind us, some guys in Alexandria, Virginia, who analyzed what the ‘cool kids’ want and hired us to do it. I mean, that’s the case with a lot of places.” Somer laughs. “Everyone’s too cynical now,” he says.
Opening a restaurant in New York is, by rule, a fraught and masochistic endeavor, and the Rusty Knot was no exception. In the early afternoon before the opening night “friends and family” party, Somer is explaining how, when he first saw the space, he was less than enthusiastic. A modern brick high-rise on the West Side Highway, it was the opposite of a Lower East Side alley: bland and obvious and immune to charm. It was shown to him by Ken Friedman, the restaurant impresario behind the Spotted Pig, the wildly popular gastropub in the West Village, who was looking for a partner. “When he first showed it to me, I said to him, ‘You know, this building is hideous,’ ” Somer recalls. “I didn’t know what to do with it.” But eventually Friedman came to serve as what Somer calls his “fictional muse” for the Rusty Knot. “Have you met Ken?” he asks. “Yeah, I’d never heard of him either. He’s this happy-go-lucky guy. Anyway, I just started imagining Ken as, like, a World War II vet. He was in the Navy, stationed in Polynesia. He loves girls. He loves motorcycles. He loves drinks with umbrellas. He loves hanging out with his buddies. He loves sunsets. So he gets back from the war and decides to open up a bar and doesn’t really care about anything except that it’s close to the water. Boom—the Rusty Knot.”
The two make an unlikely team. While Somer has a reputation for carefully shunning publicity, Friedman can hardly let a conversation pass without mentioning one of his numerous celebrity investors. And whereas Somer is proud to note that he has worked in the industry for years “without ever meeting Frank Bruni,” Friedman cultivates a Rolodex of famous chefs and major critics, and tapped a heavily tattooed 32-year-old named Joaquin Baca, one of the co-founders of the Momofuku empire, to be the chef of the Rusty Knot. As Somer explains the relationship—the dynamic of the mood guy (himself) and the food guy (Friedman)—the landlord suddenly storms through the building’s doors, informing Somer that the odors from Baca’s fried cod balls and Coca-Cola–braised ribs are wafting up the elevator bank.