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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
After racking the balls, he continues: “Anyway, to be honest, I don’t really like the whole idea of doing a ‘friends and family.’ With Freemans, we just kind of opened the doors and saw what happened. We had no idea what we were doing. If I have any plan, it’s really not to have a plan, you know, to just let things happen organically. I was kind of hoping we could do the same with this”—he scans the room—“but I guess that’s impossible now.”
The thought unsettles him.
“I think we need to do a shot,” Somer declares, but by that point the Rusty Knot has run clear out of liquor.
In February, buoyed by the success of Freemans, Somer purchased a property in Ulster County for a sum his parents continue to find deeply disturbing. A stone Dutch farmhouse dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, it rests on 38 secluded acres that include a barn, a detached den containing a pool table, a pond, a creek, a magnificent view of the Shawangunk Mountains, an expansive meadow, a number of towering oaks and evergreens, and a blandly suburban guest house built in the nineties that Somer pretends doesn’t exist. At the moment the house is empty but for three antique wooden chairs, a table, and a mattress that sits before the fireplace in the middle of the living room. Somer and his girlfriend, Courtney McGuinness, a petite 30-year- old who produces photo shoots, drive upstate every weekend with Georgie, their excitable Yorkshire terrier who walks with a limp after suffering a near-death accident too complicated to explain.
The property strikes a visitor as an ideal retreat for the quintessential Freemans Man, and with reason: Somer doubts he would have been interested in the house had he not opened Freemans. “You know how there are Method actors? Well, I’ve always thought of myself as a Method designer,” Somer says one afternoon while giving a tour of the house, with McGuinness and Georgie in tow. “I get sort of consumed by it. Like I get really into the character of the space. It’s hard to explain. Like with Freemans, suddenly my hair was kind of more slick, more coiffed, like I got this whole 1800s vibe going on.” He turns to McGuinness. “Do you know what I’m trying to say?”
“Sort of,” says McGuinness, who has the earthy, humble ease of someone who spent her adolescence in Vermont. “Are you talking about how you started wearing the suits all the time?”
“Yeah, the suits,” Somer interjects. He is animated now. “That’s when I started thinking about designing the suits, and then I did start designing them, and for a long time I didn’t wear anything but suits. Remember that? Sometimes I dressed to go to the store, and it was almost theatrical.”
“And now for the past year you’ve looked like a drunken sailor,” says McGuinness. “Your hair’s kind of long and greasy. You never shave.”
“Exactly,” Somer replies.
As he makes his way to a clearing by the creek, Somer describes how, fittingly, buying the house has gotten him thinking about what he wants to do next. “It sounds corny,” he says, “but I’m kind of into figuring out a way to be more self-sufficient. You know, like really getting back to the earth. I’ve gotten really into gardening, right? And the other day I was gardening—gardening!—and I started thinking, You know, what if I, like, become a farmer. I mean, seriously. Maybe the next thing I’ll do will be a farm.” But the more he speaks, the clearer it becomes that Somer already has a very particular idea of farming. “I’d like to have a farm where people could hang out and eat, and maybe there’ll be, like, a kind of metropolitan outpost. A bed and breakfast, but more rustic. I’ve been looking at some spaces in Brooklyn…”
He trails off. It used to be that he could just talk openly about his ideas, but lately he’s grown careful. Even out here in the woods, you never know who might be listening.
The Meticulous Imperfectionist
Eight years ago, Taavo Somer came to New York to be an architect. But he soon got mixed up in other things (bawdy parties, witty T-shirts, funky restaurants), all based on an effortless blend of high and low culture. Somer understood and fed a market for modern realizations of an idealized past, and before long, his evolving sense of retro style—symbolized by taxidermy, thick woolen shirts, unkempt beards, distressed signage, and classic rock—set the tone for all of downtown.
THE GUY ON A BIKE
He hosted parties at Pussycat Lounge, a seedy strip club in the financial district, distributing fliers all over downtown on his lowrider bike.
He designed his own t-shirts with silly slogans and started selling them for $88 apiece at Barneys. When the silly-expensive-T-shirt business suddenly boomed, Somer moved on to other pursuits.
In an alley off Rivington Street, Somer started a restaurant called Freemans that ignited a citywide craze for antlers. Next door, he opened a shop called Freemans Sporting Club that sells old-fashioned men’s clothes and includes a retro barbershop for that rare occasion when a man needs a shave.
THE HOT ZONE
Somer’s newest creation is The Rusty Knot, an assiduously art-directed dive bar in the West Village that perfectly replicates the thrill of slumming it (without involving anything close to an actual slum).