6 Ways One LES Restaurant Changed The Way New Yorkers Eat

pag2Photo: Courtesy of Freemans.
When it first opened a decade ago, Freemans hit all the right notes. So right, in fact, that the restaurant is still going strong, and its formula for charming seasonal-homespun-quirk has become the predominant dining genre in New York City.
Back in 2004, Taavo Somer, an architect turned T-shirt designer, was looking for a place to throw a Halloween party for a thousand people. He found what would become Freemans at the end of a lonely Lower East Side alley off the Bowery. After he and his friends had a good time that evening, he decided to open up a permanent café/restaurant in the tucked away space.
To make it happen, Taavo enlisted his friend William Tigertt, who was getting his MFA in Fiction at NYU, to help write a business plan and run the new spot. "I had the romantic idea of writing during the day and bartending at night," Tigertt says. Instant and uproarious success crushed that dream. "We were the zeitgeist, of the moment," he continues. "I'm proud that we're still here, still going strong."
Ten years feels like a hundred years in the culinary world, and not all pioneering innovators can become a much-loved classic — let alone play an important role in defining the New York City culinary scene — in the way that Freemans has. Ahead, just a few of the NYC resto norms you have this charming eatery to thank for.
pagPhoto: Courtesy of Freemans.
The Rise Of Comfort Food
In 2004, old-world-inspired restaurants were the norm — there were tons of French or Italian eateries, with some heady fusion fever thrown in the mix. Rustic American was not a thing. But, Taavo wanted a menu all about comfort food and nostalgia. He took cues from his rural Pennsylvania childhood and served up dishes like hot artichoke dip, mac n’ cheese, and bananas foster.
Who knew people would go crazy for devils on horseback and cheddar toast. It's no longer uncouth for restaurants to serve mac n'cheese — now, it’s nearly obligatory.
pag5Photo: Courtesy of Freemans.
A Serious Focus On Cocktails & Craft Beer
"Ten years ago," Tigertt says, "if you wanted a good cocktail, there were about half a dozen places you could find one in New York. [Note: Milk and Honey opened in 2000.] Now there are hundreds of places."
In 2004, vodka and cranberry was the drink of choice. Crafting cocktails with fresh juices and ingredients or changing the drink menu seasonally were seen as radical moves that have since been adopted by countless establishments.
Next came craft beer, which New York was pokey to get excited about, but which has now become fairly ubiquitous.
What can we expect next? Craft spirits. "We have access to better, more expressive and interesting spirits than ever before," Tigertt says. Cheers to that.
pag4Photo: Courtesy of Freemans.
The Importance Of A "Secret" Location
"There's a sense of discovery, coming down the alley," Tigertt says. New Yorkers love something a little hard to find, even if it's a food blog darling. Think of Freemans' tucked-away, hush-hush vibe as a forerunner to the speakeasy craze — but a lot more homey.
"It's like a living room for people in NYC," he continues. Freemans is a labyrinth of separate dining rooms — they've expanded several times over the decade. In a big, buzzy city, it feels fantastically novel to be so tucked away.
The Overthrow Of Fancy
Simple, rustic food and service is Freemans' signature; and casual goes much further than sticky ribs and the acceptability of discreet finger licking. A no-reservations policy may lead to interminable waits, but it encourages diners to drop in on a whim. The restaurant was also a forerunner of the new and laid-back way New Yorkers prefer to break bread: Shareable plates that arrive whenever they're ready and the idea that a destination-worthy dining experience doesn't need to involve getting dressed up or knowing which silverware to use for each course.
pag3Photo: Courtesy of Freemans.
A Seasonal, Local, And Sustainable Mindset
The locavore movement came into its own in the mid-aughts: Michael Pollan's Omnivore’s Dilemma was published in 2006 and Dan Barber's Blue Hill at Stone Barns opened in 2004.
Freemans was an extra-early adopter of farm-to-table — you know, before the catchphrase was a catchphrase. It changed its menu with the seasons, which at the time was fairly uncommon, and sourced its ingredients from nearby sustainable farms.
The Hipster Aesthetic
Taxidermy didn't start here, but back in 2004 the dead moose look could be found pretty much exclusively at the Harvard Club. The 1990s were all about sleek and glossy, and Freemans was the antithesis: A dark, cozy "clandestine colonial American tavern" with a hunting lodge vibe. It was the ultimate hipster haven when people were just starting to groan at the word "hipster."
Today, the place is still artfully distressed, with a curvy zinc bar, a wall of Victorian bird boxes, and its famed taxidermy. It's dark and lived-in; cozy and candlelit. While the hipster trend may have come and gone, Freemans still makes sipping a French 75 under a dead animal feel like home.

More from Food & Drinks

R29 Original Series