Restaurateur Gabe Stulman lets spontaneity dictate what goes up (and comes down) on the walls of his new spot, one of our Restaurants of the Year.
When I was an intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the best perks was access to the museum when it was closed. Similar to restaurants, it was closed on Mondays—though that’s not the case anymore. Mondays meant the museum was mostly empty and quiet, where you sit and stare at the art without any distraction. It also meant this was the day that works were moved around by gallery installation experts. Maybe I couldn’t actually be in that room during that turnover, but it was amazing to watch them gingerly transport the artwork. It was like the museum was a living, breathing thing.
That’s kind of what it’s like to sit down for a meal at Fairfax in New York City, one of our Restaurants of the Year. Here, restaurateur Gabe Stulman similarly treats all objects in the restaurant like a museum, where art, furniture, and objects carry significant meaning and arrive and depart at the restaurant as needed.
“It’s a combination of three sources: my dear friend and prominent hip-hop photographer Jonathan Mannion, longtime regular and Sports Illustrated director of picture sales Karen Carpenter, and my wife Gina and me,” says Stulman.
As you wander over to the bathroom at Fairfax, you’ll stumble across portraits of Mos Def and Darryl McDaniels of Run-DMC with handwriting scrawled all over them. They’re on loan from Mannion—in true museum curation fashion. Mannion had the artists themselves write on the photos with a Sharpie—in true restaurant kitchen fashion. “He’s like the Library of Congress for hip hop photography,” says Stulman. To name-drop a few, he’s shot album covers for Jay-Z and Eminem.
When a mutual friend introduced Mannion to Stulman years ago, they immediately clicked and have been collaborating ever since. That means Stulman offering a piece of the restaurant in exchange for art he “could never afford,” he says, or Mannion letting him flip through three decades of art books and lending whatever Stulman likes for the restaurant. Carpenter similarly invites Stulman to wander through her old utility closets filled with sports memorabilia.
Above the couch at Fairfax, there’s Phil Jackson, the legendary basketball coach. “It’s a crazy historic photo,” says Stulman. “Before he was a coach, he was a player for the Knicks, and here he’s playing the Lakers. You see Jerry West in the photo. In that moment, nobody would have known Phil would go on to coach the Lakers to five rings. I like images where you have to look closer.”
Stulman’s always had a penchant for making people take a double-take at his restaurants. Back when Bar Sardine was Chez Sardine, “an inauthentic izakaya,” says Stulman, he got Pam Morita’s estate to print a still from Karate Kid, thanks to Mannion. It was one of his favorite movies as a kid, and Stulman wanted to display one specific moment in the film, where Mr. Miyagi is holding chopsticks to teach Daniel-san how to catch a fly. “If you like movies, it’s an epic image,” says Stulman. Up until the opening of Fairfax, it was sitting in Stulman’s dining room. “I thought it was time to bring Miyagi back into people’s lives.”
But not everything it meant to stop you in your tracks at Fairfax. “It’s more just a curation of what Gina and I love,” says Stulman. Together, they’ve designed all the West Village restaurants in his mini New York City empire. All the tchotchkes they’ve collected over the years, all of the furniture they’ve amassed in the dreams of moving into a country home—“I never got that country home,” says Stulman with a laugh—have now gone into Fairfax. In a couple months, he’ll probably rotate some things out of the restaurant.
“Fairfax hasn’t even turned a year old yet, and we’ve got plenty of art that didn’t make the cut once we opened,” he says. “If I come across something amazing, we’ll do it. I’ll buy more and move things around.”
Just as a museum is a living, breathing thing, so is a restaurant, even in its design.