Gabriel Stulman — who made his name as a neighborhood restaurateur in the West Village with cozy, all-day spots like Joseph Leonard — isn’t trying to go a different direction with his three new projects in the new Freehand Hotel in Flatiron. In fact, his primary goal at the new restaurants is to keep much of the same vibes from his other ones.
There’s the all-day restaurant on the second floor of the Sydell Group hotel, located at 23 Lexington Avenue, between East 23rd and 24th streets, called Studio, and a cocktail bar called The George Washington Bar, both of which open Tuesday. Then there’s a main restaurant on the ground floor, called Simon & The Whale, which opens next week.
All together, it’s been a more extensive project than the restaurateur’s ever tackled. Stulman, along with partners Matt Kebbekus and chef Matt Griffin, spent more time working on these restaurants than on any other, he says. But ultimately, they want the restaurants and bars in the hotel to channel the same energy of the West Village places, but with one key difference: The Flatiron ones are significantly bigger.
“I look at Lebron James or Kobe Bryant: They’re not trying to play a different sport each year. They’re just trying to get better at basketball. That’s really what I think we all want to do. We just want to keep getting better at the sport we’re playing,” Stulman says.
To keep in the DNA of Stulman’s Happy Cooking Hospitality, many people from the other restaurants will be playing a role here, too. Griffin, who’s acting as executive chef at the Freehand restaurants, has been with the group since Jeffrey’s Grocery opened in 2010, and Kebbekus has been around since Stulman opened his first West Village restaurant, Joseph Leonard, in 2009.
Also in line with the Stulman identity, Studio — which occupies about 100 seats on the second floor — honors the restaurateur and his mother’s Jewish-Moroccan heritage with flavors from North Africa and countries like Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, and Georgia. Breakfast offerings include date-dulce de leche babka and brik-style eggs with phyllo and harissa, while later in the day, small plates like Turkish beef dumplings and spit-roasted celery root with taramasalata and Moroccan spices show up.
For entrees, Griffin’s cooking up a rotisserie duck with tea-steamed rice, mint yogurt, and bibb lettuce, as well as sandwiches, salads, sweets, and a burger. It will additionally have an extensive bread program, run by Zoe Kanan. She’s taken familiar pastries and infused them with similar international influences, adding sesame seeds and poppy seeds for a more savory slant. (See the full menus below.)
The larger scale will be particularly felt at Simon & the Whale, swinging open next week with about 80 seats, plus private dining and outdoor seating. Griffin says the bigger kitchen is an opportunity to express imagination with more fire power. The full-service restaurant will skew more American than its upstairs neighbor, with a focus on coastal fare like tartares and crudos. “I really feel like a kid in a candy store with this restaurant,” Griffin says. “I’m just trying to create food that matches its surroundings.”
The 32-seat George Washington Bar, a historic room with vintage furniture and a restored original fireplace, will also go eclectic with its offerings. Unexpected cocktail ingredients like creme fraiche, harissa, kimchi, meat, and porcini are used. One called Smoke and Melons includes melon vodka, cantaloupe, manzanilla sherry, and prosciutto. Bar snacks range from standard fare like deviled eggs and a salted pretzel to more pricey offerings like a foie gras torchon, a grilled cheese made with fontina and black truffle, and caviar on buttered toast.
Stulman has made his name by carving out small but buzzy and personality-packed spaces in the West Village, first for Joseph Leonard and Jeffrey’s Grocery and then with historic Fedora. He also opened acclaimed Perla, which more recently turned into all-day wine bar Fairfax. Over the years, he racked up positive reviews and awards for his work in the neighborhood.
What inspired Stulman to take this next step in expanding his empire was his love for hotels. The avid traveler likens staying in a hotel to the experience of hosting sleepovers for guests. He says he was in particular attracted to the neighborhood vibe of Freehand Hotels, which is owned by the Sydell Group, the same company behind trendsetting Nomad hotel, and designed by Roman and Williams. At his West Village restaurants, guests usually spend an average of two hours in the space for dinner, he says; in a hotel, guests will dine for a couple hours, go upstairs to sleep, and then wake up “still in your house,” as Stulman puts it.
“I just think that that’s something really amazing and special, because my whole life growing up, the way my mother ran our house, we were always having people spend the night,” Stulman says. “I love that feeling of taking care of somebody at night, through the night, and into the next day.”
Studio and the George Washington Bar open today, and Simon & The Whale will open on January 25. The Freehand Hotel will also open a New York outpost of its nationally recognized Miami rooftop bar Broken Shaker in the spring.