“No smells! The deal was no smells!”
This is not good. The landlord had long been concerned about the project—a dive bar, for yuppies?—and was especially sensitive about how his residents would deal with a kitchen. (“Just understand that Gisele, the supermodel, lives in my penthouse,” he liked to point out.) Somer calls Friedman, who arrives at 2:45 p.m, immediately sitting down with Somer and Baca for an emergency brainstorming session. The conversation is tense. Somer doesn’t say much. The ribs and cod balls would now have to be scrapped and replaced by … here is the problem. There is no time for replacements.
“Maybe not having food will be … a good thing?” Somer finally ventures, breaking a long silence. “Like, it’ll make people curious about this strange, mysterious place that supposedly served food but doesn’t.”
It is a funny moment. Funny because telling a chef from Momofuku to forgo food is like telling Dylan to lip-synch through a concert. Funny because the suggestion of a foodless opening defies all conventional wisdom and therefore serves as a sly assertion (to the restaurant world, to himself) that Somer remains a professional amateur. But mainly funny because it’s exactly what happens.
The doors finally open around sundown, and soon enough there are so many people, so many well-dressed, well-connected bodies everywhere—Josh Hartnett, LeBron James, and Mary-Kate Olsen among them—that the idea of serving food quickly becomes a moot point. “We physically cannot get the food from the kitchen to the customer. This may be a problem,” Somer says. “And can you hear the jukebox? I can’t tell if it’s too quiet or too loud.” He seems deeply troubled. Details like the jukebox volume are the ones that Somer obsesses about most. At Freemans, for instance, there’s a ban on anything he deems “pussy rock.” “Anyway, I picked the music,” he says, referring to the jukebox at the Rusty Knot. “I’ve always been into kind of alternative rock, but that didn’t really fit the mood, so I looked for, like, weird classic rock. Bob Seger. Christopher Cross. Jimmy Buffett. And it’s funny, because now I’m kind of into it. Like those guys are actually good, you know?”
“And now for the past year you’ve looked like a drunken sailor,” says Somer’s girlfriend, Courtney McGuinness, referring to his metamorphosis since working on the Rusty Knot. “Your hair’s kind of greasy. You never shave.”
Overhearing this, Friedman comes over. Immersed in celebrity, he is in high spirits.
“That’s how Taavo’s brain works,” he says. “He’s amazing! I’ll tell you a funny story. The other night we had a birthday party for—” He cuts himself off and turns to Somer. “Have you done any name-dropping yet?”
“I haven’t,” Somer replies, looking nervous.
“Well, it’s more my style, isn’t it?” Friedman says. “Anyway, so the other night we had a birthday party for the girlfriend of Jay-Z’s manager. Jay and Beyoncé were here. I love Jay—he’s one of the partners at the Spotted Pig. So at one point Jay turns to me and he says, ‘Ken, I love this place. Very cool. Nice work. But what’s up with the music?’ So I say to Jay, ‘You know, Taavo is a very visual person. He creates worlds. The music is all part of his thing.’ Jay kind of took that in. Then he says, ‘I respect that. I was gonna hook up my iPod, but now I won’t.’ ”
Somer, by this point, is too distracted to be embarrassed.
“Something’s wrong with the jukebox,” he says again. “I can’t tell if I can hear anything. All these people. I think someone may have brushed up against the speaker wire … ”
The crowd, of course, is a testament to Somer’s ability to create the sorts of environments that offer the intoxicating thrill of being somehow in the know, ahead of the curve. Among those who stop by, for example, is Stephen Starr, the owner of over a dozen massive, wantonly corporate restaurants (Morimoto, Buddakan) that could not be further from Somer’s aesthetic, but who recently commissioned Somer to design a space in Philadelphia. “For a younger hipster audience,” Starr explains, “Taavo is a kind of master of underdesigned design, which is what people are gravitating toward today.”
Such praise does little to ease Somer’s sense of frustration. When he designs a space, he thinks about creating an environment that he would want to spend time in, a setting he would return to, yet at the moment the Rusty Knot is the opposite of such a place. “I don’t know any of these people. They’re all Ken’s friends,” Somer says, retreating to the pool table, where he spends the majority of the night drinking canned Tecate. “We salt the rims of the cans. Kinda cool, right? Those details matter, you know? Like the pool table. It’s only 50 cents. That was important to me.”