HOMEY ALL-DAY DINING AT FAIRFAX
“I think my goal is always to be a neighborhood restaurant,” restaurateur Gabriel Stulman says in earnest, though there’s some irony to the statement, considering his restaurants are the neighborhood for at least one block in the West Village. “To me, being a neighborhood restaurant means being the extension of someone’s home.” In that, his latest opening Fairfax might be the best representation of the ethos of his Happy Cooking group, a new concept reinventing his beloved Italian restaurant Perla that’s designed to feel like a friend’s apartment.
Named for the city in Virginia where both he and head chef Jack Harris are coincidentally from, Fairfax is a departure from what Stulman has done before. His other restaurants, such as Joseph Leonard and Bar Sardine, fit in the style of unpretentious, all-day dining that Keith McNally helped usher in, but Fairfax takes that comfort even further. The first thing you notice upon entrance is the décor and the casual layout of the seating, more akin to a residence than a restaurant. “What we were trying to channel is a home,” Stulman says. “In the fourteen years I’ve lived in New York, every apartment I’ve lived in, the living room and the dining room were the same physical room. I did not have walls separating my dining room from my sofa.”
With leather couches, coffee tables, a bright yellow bookshelf, and walls lined with artwork, Fairfax does indeed feel like Stulman’s home—quite literally, as many of the furnishings came from his home or from storage when he changed apartments. It’s not just a key part of the æsthetic, though, and the design itself dictates the atmosphere. “I want the furniture to say, ‘Treat it like a dinner party or a cocktail party at your home,'” he says. “You want to chill and just have a glass of wine and not eat anything? You have my blessings. You want to have a three-course meal? You have my blessings. So how can a menu work where it gives some people the opportunity to have a multi-course meal, and gives the other person [the opportunity] to just snack?”
The result is an array of dishes that are perfectly sized for an anytime bite, like burrata, bean toast, or scallops, along with a handful of larger plates such as the brook trout or the cubano. Here, Stulman and Harris decided to be more playful, bringing in a range of flavors from different cuisines to create unique dishes that, happily, don’t fit easily into any designation. The chicken leg is stuffed with za’atar, steak tartare is made with Ethiopian berbere spices, and the aforementioned burrata sits atop a tomatillo salsa. “We were like, ‘Let’s open it up and not have any boundaries of cuisine.’ If we’re not going to be Perla and we’re not going to be Italian, we’ve got a couple of choices we can make. We can pick another genre. We can be French, we can be Spanish, you name it. And we were like, ‘No, let’s not get out of one box and pick another box. Let’s get out of the fucking box!'”
Despite Fairfax being a completely new project, people still associate it with the closing of the much-loved Perla—an inevitability of which Stulman is aware. But the transformation also gives him the chance to reflect on the state of the restaurant industry as a whole. “There are more openings in general today every week and month and year than there were eleven years ago when I opened my first restaurant,” he notes. A look at any ‘fall restaurant preview’ confirms that, and dining in general has become more casual since Perla opened, resulting in a crowded landscape which pushed Stulman to innovate again. “What was unique was we were serving very high-level Italian food, but we were serving it wearing jeans and t-shirts, and playing Jay-Z and Mos Def, and we were taking drinks with our guests and having fun, and we weren’t missing a detail on service,” he recalls of Perla. “However, today there are a dozen examples of restaurants that are serving really good Italian food and keeping it casual and relaxed and playing hip hop, and they’re all doing a really great job at it. And so for a diner, I think the challenge becomes the process with which we make choices of where to have dinner.”
“Fairfax is all about creating a place where we can say yes,” Stulman exclaims, and while the industry is getting more crowded, that philosophy is something the customer increasingly expects, and where Stulman has always had an edge. “Hospitality is cultural in the way that I was raised. I was raised in a culture where you put your guest on a pedestal. And I’ve always tried to translate that to my restaurants.”
Fairfax is now open at 234 West 4th Street, New York. For more information, please visit Fairfax.nyc.