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October 21, 2004, 12:58 pm



October 21, 2004 -- IT has a hit-or-miss menu, bizarre d?cor and gruff service.
Exactly why a semi-new restaurant called Freeman's is suddenly the place to be remains a mystery to many of its patrons, who tend to spend their evenings shivering and smoking outside, waiting for a table.

"I'm trying to figure out who in the hell the clientele is," said 27-year-old Blair Christensen, as he stared in the window on Monday night.

"It's a very European place," said a very European man, who declined to give his name.

"It's hidden and unusual. You can't get a table. I had to wait an hour and a half. I've been here five times in one week!"

Freeman's ? which has been open two or three months, depending on whom you ask ? is possibly the most difficult-to-locate hot spot since the faux-speakeasy scene at the deliberately hidden Lansky Lounge.

Tucked away at the end of Freeman Alley (on Rivington Street between Bowery and Chrystie Street), the cozy space ? which offers a theme-park-y sense of danger in what may be the city's priciest, cleanest alley ? has become a magnet for hipsters, artists, writers, models, and regular people who love to feel they've discovered something.

But few seem to know how Freeman's got here, how they managed to never, ever before notice this alleyway, or why the walls are studded with taxidermy.

"I remember these fashion guys telling me to meet them there, that it was in the back of an alley," said ex-Smashing Pumpkin and DJ-about-town James Iha. "I'm like, 'An alley in New York?' I've never even heard of such a thing. It was so wild."

As it turns out, Freeman's popularity is a mystery carefully cultivated by enigmatic owner Taavo Somer.

A trained architect, designer of the famed "My Boyfriend Is Out of Town" T-shirt, and a prankster who, legend has it, once laced toilet paper all over NoLIta, Somer is best known around downtown New York for knowing what people want ? well before they do.

"Taavo is a pretty influential person in the downtown scene," said friend and fan Eleanor Lembo, a partner in Earnest Sewn jeans who shares office space with Somer.

Yet for all his connections and trend-spotting abilities, there are no pictures of Somer to be found anywhere online; he would not be interviewed by The Post, nor would he agree to photographs inside his restaurant.

But that's all part of his allure, said his pal Carlos Quirarte.

Two years ago, Somer and Quirarte began throwing a weekly Saturday night party at the then-undiscovered Pussycat Lounge. It lasted for a year ? a longer life span than most weekly bashes ? and was so popular the two used to turn people away just for fun.

"He loves to do things in places where people wouldn't normally expect it," said Quirarte.

A few months later, Somer ? after a breakup ? began rolling around town in an inside-out T-shirt with the words "emotionally unavailable" scrawled on the front. Today, that line of T's sells at Barneys for $88 a pop.

As for Freeman's ? Somer's first venture into the restaurant business ? "He saw that spot two years ago and he was like, 'I've got this feeling people would go there,' " said Quirarte.

He was right.

"This is my first time here," said a black-clad p.r. rep on Monday night. "I feel very rushed. There are too many people waiting. It took me an hour to get a table. It's cool and a little disturbing ? so it fits the bill. I'd come back."

Source: New York Post