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Back of the House:
Freemans

First published in the January-February 2011 edition of Edible Manhattan

Comment | January 10, 2011 | By | Photographs by Michael Harlan Turkell

The light at the end of the alley.

If you zig and then zag off Bowery onto Rivington Street, you’ll happen upon a pavement path that you could easily mistake for a delivery driveway, or miss entirely in a single long blink. But if you turn your head for just the right slip of a second as you pass by, the sight at the end of what’s called Freeman Alley would surely make you stop.

From a distance, it looks like a party in somebody’s old, quirky little row house—all strings of glittery white lights and the warm glow emanating from the 20-pane front window of the restaurant and cocktail spot called Freemans, a place still so cool seven years after its arrival it’s practically synonymous with the adjective.

Although, if you ask owners Taavo Somer and Will Tigertt, it started more as an accident than an act. In a city of carefully crafted concepts and aggressive PR campaigns, Somer and Tigertt just wanted to have fun.

Little did they know the hard-to-find spot, originally intended as the stage for a single private party, would soon be widely celebrated for its taxidermy decor; bacon-wrapped, blue-cheesestuffed prunes; and killer cocktails—not to mention famously telling the Bush twins, in a 2004 moment of poetic punk-rock snark, that the wait for a table would be another four years.

A Pennsylvania native, Somer had been working as an architect in Minneapolis when a job offer from the firm Steven Holl Architects brought him to New York in 2000 at the age of 27—but he admits he came more for play than for work.

“The reason I came to New York was I was imagining the NYC from the early ’80s, or the ’70s, or even the ’60s,” says Somer, “places like Max’s Kansas City and the Mudd Club and loft parties. But when I got here, I kept thinking, ‘Where are all the cool parties?’”

Quickly disillusioned with the era’s shiny-shiny, big-big design and architecture, he took on side projects—making clothing, throwing parties, deejaying—as much for the meaning as for the money.

Somer met Tigertt, a graphic artist who’d moved to New York in 2001, at Selvedge, a Nolita shop that sold vintage and limited edition Levi’s—good old things seen in a new way. Within six months of meeting in 2003, they were business partners in search of a spot for a tavern they envisioned as a low-key answer to the overwrought, overly planned concepts all over town—places with superfluous menus and goofy cocktails swimming with flavored vodka.

Through his day job at Steven Holl, Somer gained an introduction to nightlife impresario Serge Becker, who needed an in-house architect during the creation of Midtown’s scene-y Lever House. In a way, Becker had started out in a similar vein to Somer, deejaying and ad-hoc-ing it in his early career as art director of infamous ’80s club Area before going on to become the force behind spots like Fez at Time Café, the Bowery Bar, Joe’s Pub and La Esquina. So when Becker formed plans to open a new club in 2003, he offered Somer the space for a Halloween party he had in the works. But as luck would have it, the club didn’t open on time, and Somer found himself with 1,500 paying guests and no venue. Feeling bad about the ill-fated transaction, Becker hooked Somer up with an agreeable landlord who owned a building on Chrystie and was fine with a Devil’s Night soiree there, so long as all the guests entered through the building’s back entryway on Freeman Alley. And that was pretty much that.

The proverbial dark alley is where terrible things are said to happen. You’d think that once Somer and Tigertt got a look at the cracked pavement, tagged walls and dark shadows of Freeman Alley—once frequented by Bowery junkies and ladies with alternative careers—they would have kept looking. But in its mean-street funkiness they found charm, and the ultimate refutation of the shiny scene. So it was that Somer and Tigertt claimed a lapsed location as their own little kingdom.

“It was intentionally simple—and cheap to build,” says Tigertt.  The wooden floors look as if they haven’t seen play since the gangs of New York put back drinks. (“Most people assume it’s been here,” says Somer of the weathered plank floor while admitting it hasn’t—the wood is reclaimed pine from upstate.) The rounded-edge, polished concrete bar has a utilitarian beauty that makes you want to run your hand across its cool surface; on simple wooden shelves sit earthenware jars plunked down and filled with dried flowers and herbs; on the walls hang old etchings of bygone New York and Somer’s extensive collection of taxidermy—a quirky, Schott’s Miscellany-ish design choice that established its own aesthetic almost immediately upon Freemans’ opening in the fall of 2004.

Freemans began with only 45 seats, an electric oven and a hot plate from which their first chef, Jean Anderson (whose husband, Sam Buffa, is now Somer and Tigertt’s partner in the F.S.C. Barber shops), somehow managed to knock out cover after cover every night.  “We had no idea what we were doing,” marvels Somer. “It’s like when you see little kids on snowboards bombing a black diamond—it’s because they don’t know how badly they can get hurt.” But they were onto something—despite some puzzling initial critical digs, many items from the early menu remain as staples, like the Devils on Horseback, grilled brook trout and an artichoke dip that riffed on something similar Somer loved back in Minneapolis.

“With the menu, we wanted elements of European refinery but it needed to be rustic, too; to tell the story from an American-colonial aesthetic.” They cooked up game meats like wild boar and venison and, as the little kitchen found its feet, sustainable sourcing became a priority. “As the restaurant stabilized, we were able to think about foraging,” says Somer. “Where did the cattle, chickens and pigs come from? Were our radishes locally grown? Are our cheeses made by nice goats and people upstate? Were we making our own bitters in house? This came later, when we could afford it.”

The crowds poured in and the little eatery soon outgrew the rooms it initially occupied. “After burning through a few hot plates and ovens, it became apparent really quickly that we needed more space for the kitchen,” says Somer, who explains that in order to literally fuel upgrades to the cooking equipment, the partners had to add seating to bring in more cash.

Today the capacity is up to 160 and the space remains perennially packed. The kitchen is under the direction of their fourth chef, Preston Madson, a strawberry-blond Georgia native who, along with his white-jacketed wife, Ginger Pierce, oversees the menu at Tigertt and Somer’s new Southern-tinged spot on Bowery, Peels. A former vegan who’s now into butchering, Madson fits easily into the quirky, contradictory Freemans suit—and he whips up the kinds of meals that make you want to hunker down and plan a revolution: an ample plate of tender roasted beets and smoked trout paired with tangy Greek yogurt and lemon; luscious, beer-braised pork shank you could use to club a redcoat; salty, juicy just-right roasted chicken and potatoes with chubby cipollini onions.

The food is rib-sticking and from the heart—but much of the crowd comes in for Freemans’ beloved list of seasonal, savory-minded cocktails, which were Tigertt’s passion from the get-go, and mirror the flavors of the main menu with ingredients like sage, maple syrup, fig jam and ginger. “It was just something I’ve always been into,” says Tigertt. Even pre-Freemans his desire for a good drink prompted him to take classes with the grand pooh-bah of tipples, Dale DeGroff, and work a side job at a bistro bar where he tinkered and crafted what would become Freemans’ initial cocktail list.

The drinks remain some of the best and most balanced you’ll find in town. Tigertt acknowledges input from liquor luminaries—Sasha Petraske and Toby Malone, the latter of whom created the eatery’s still-signature cocktail, a mildly sweet-and-savory concoction of Jim Beam rye, house-made pomegranate molasses, orange bitters, lemon juice and a DeGroff-inspired flaming orange peel—but he doesn’t seem interested in name dropping or star launching. Where other restaurants might trumpet such names, the Freemans way is to downplay them in a spirit of everyman’s solidarity. Rather a sort of staff socialism prevails behind the bar: Each bartender submits recipes, which are collectively decided upon for inclusion on the menu. In similar anti-PR moves, Tigertt changes things seasonally and insists on esoteric spirits (“There is no flavored vodka ever!”), but forgoes listing such details on the menu because just like with the people who make them, the cocktails are more about the sum of their parts than any impressive ingredients. He doesn’t even court the late-night crowd that would surely line up down the alley: The bar closes at midnight.

In similar fashion, the wine list reveals Tigertt’s serious and studied love of the grape. The 150 or so producers listed are Old World–minded with some American ingenuity and craftsmanship thrown in for good measure. He’s fallen so deeply into wine geekdom that he forged a project with the Sonoma-based Hirsch Vineyards to create Freemans’ own custom cuvée, a pinot noir served by the glass. Last October, they released their own small-production label, Gothic, which launched with a pinot entitled, in Poe-like spirit, Nevermore, now sold at the restaurant as well as at Daniel and Minetta Tavern. Which is kind of funny if you think about it.

Their new restaurant, Peels, which opened last Labor Day weekend, may seem the antithesis of Freemans—all bright lights, right on Bowery. The dawn ’til dark menu and utilitarian design aesthetic are meant to be at the same time the opposite of Freemans and yet holds a similar, straightforward albeit south of the Mason-Dixon approach to the food—andouille corn dogs, shrimp and grits, fried chicken, along with feel-good homey staples like chicken noodle soup or a juicy cheeseburger made from grassfed beef—just a little ramped up: On a typical Saturday or Sunday they serve around 500 for brunch alone.

“With Freemans, it was baby steps,” says Tigertt. “With Peels, it was boom!” The kitchen pumps out 5,000 buttermilk biscuits alone a day—“It’s gotten to the point that we use ‘biscuit’ as a verb,” laughs Tigertt of Madson, like, ‘he’s gotta go biscuit!’; or, ‘man, he’s really biscuiting today.’” As of this writing, the partners were also keeping close to the breast an eatery it’s rumored they’ll open over in Williamsburg this year. (They’re no doubt looking for an alley…).

But while other restaurateurs whose recipes are printed in Food & Wine pursue empire-building in the form of many more eateries, Somer (who also co-owns the West Village bar the Rusty Knot) and Tigertt have found ways to apply their ethos outside of food. You’d be forgiven for regarding their constellation of projects—two restaurants, two clothing shops and two barber shops, whose employees includes a mini village of cooks, iron workers, electricians and leather workers—as something of an odd combination.  But to Somer, if you care about sustainably sourced, smallbatched food, why are you wearing clothes made from feedlot leather and sewn in a sweatshop in China? Hence his men’s clothing line of made-in-NY sturdy wool and denim and flannel—a sort of huntsman’s wardrobe gone vaguely vogue—designed by Somer himself and sold at his duo of Freeman Sporting Club shops, one at the corner of Freeman Alley, and its sister on Bleecker Street. Meanwhile the two throwback barber shops channel the owners’ original because-we-wanna approach and taxidermy aesthetic, bringing back the bromantic decadence of a good cut and a straight-blade shave that’s so perfectly old-timey, the Horatio Street locale wound up in a scene from “Boardwalk Empire.”

How do these men manage to keep cool while managing the plates in the air that could, but don’t, smash at their feet? “I work all the time,” shrugs Somers, “but I don’t really feel like I’m working.” Which is perhaps what he wanted all along.

Freemans; Freeman Alley (off Rivington, between Bowery and Christie), www.freemansrestaurant.com ; 212.420.0012

About Amy Zavatto

As Deputy Editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan, Amy gets to scour the city for all that is quenching and satiating in NYC. The daughter of an old school Italian butcher, she holds her Level III Certification in Wine and Spirits from the WSET, and contributes to Imbibe, Details, More, Foxnews.com, Wynn, and is the author of The Architecture of the Cocktail, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Bartending, The Hedonist Guide to Eat NY, and co-author of The Renaissance Guide to Wine & Food Pairing with Tony DiDio. She's stomped around vineyards from the Finger Lakes to the Loire Valley and toured distilleries everywhere from Kentucky to Jalisco to the Highlands of Scotland.

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