Freeman’s is primarily a restaurant but it’s a restaurant with two bars. One when you walk in. The other in the back room—which I like a little more. It’s horseshoe shaped, not straight, so you can see other people’s faces. The bartenders have more time for you at the back bar. The lights are lower.
And there’s more taxidermy. Freeman’s has a lot of taxidermy. It’s ground zero for the stuffed-animals-in-bars-and-restaurants trend. Whatever your feelings on the matter, they do it and they do it very well. Owner Taavo Somer pretty much started the whole thing and here you can see the genetic material for a thousand bars and restaurants: Edison bulbs, birds and antlers, old paintings, stripped wallpaper, weathered wainscoting. Mercifully their bartenders don’t have waxed mustaches or armbands; they didn’t start that and for that reason and some others, Freeman's doesn't feel overly precious. The attention to detail and design in the restaurant makes it worth a visit. And it reminds me of a couple design rules:
When you’re investing in décor spend money on lighting. You can have junky paint jobs and cheap furniture, but good lights will make it all look beautiful. Freeman’s has bargain bentwood café chairs but you never notice. The lighting is so gorgeous you feel like you’re in a sepia photograph. With lighting, diffused is ideal. Upward lighting makes people look more attractive. Downward lighting does the opposite. White lighting is harsh and makes people want to leave. Orange and pink lighting is warm and makes people want to linger. (At Balthazar Keith McNally uses fluorescents, which are typically atrocious, but he puts pink bulbs in them and they’re beautiful. Neat cheap trick!)
Bars create dynamism in a restaurant. People are standing up, or sitting high up, so there is a contrast with the folks sitting lower at dinner tables. Drinkers may be layered two or three deep, standing. There’s more turnover. Bartenders are moving and looking out at the room. The bar lighting creates drama. All in all, Freeman’s second back room bar turns what would be a seat in Siberia into a coveted table.
A few other observations.
There is no music in most of the restaurant. The hum of the room is the only sound.
The place is broken up into a warren of small rooms, some just big enough for one table. The rooms are open on one or two sides which let you see through them into other parts of the restaurant. It feels private and open at the same time, like something is always going on just beyond your sight.
Service is immediate—water, no ice, small glass. Last time I visited I was busy on my phone and they did not interrupt except to place the water and menu in front of me. When I looked up the bartender caught my eyes immediately and asked what I’d like. This is in spite of him running a fully packed bar with wait service. This kind of ultra-attentive but not intrusive service is common in many places in New York. Still, I’m always amazed by how some pros do it so effortlessly.
8 Rivington St