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Gem Wine NYC: 8 Design Lessons from a 25-Year-Old Star Chef’s DIY Restaurant Makeover

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Gem Wine NYC: 8 Design Lessons from a 25-Year-Old Star Chef’s DIY Restaurant Makeover

December 1, 2023

Precocious doesn’t begin to cover it. At 25, Flynn McGarry has been dazzling people with his cooking for more than half his life. And he’s been the owner of Gem, an inventive downtown New York tasting restaurant, since he was 19 (actually, his first place was a pop-up called Eureka that he established in his family’s LA dining room when he was in middle school and relocated to NYC at 16).

Flynn says he’s now ready for a new New York restaurant. And while that’s in the planning/investment-procuring stages, he decided to turn Gem into a wine bar (and to keep his existing wine bar around the corner as an event space).

Gem’s new guise called for a new look. And to make that affordable, Flynn, for the first time, took on the designing and much of the labor himself. After all, he initially learned his trade by working his way through cookbooks from Noma, Alinea, and The French Laundry (the latter was his requested birthday present when he was 11—“I read it like a page-turning mystery”). And while studying the recipes of these high flyers, he also started developing his own design sense.

Not surprisingly, Flynn turns out to have a knack for working with ingredients that aren’t edible. Over the course of two very busy weeks in late August, much of the existing restaurant was put in storage, and Flynn and two friends, who happened to have time if not carpentry skills, created Gem Wine. Starting with the decorative fish at the entry, it’s filled with winning, simple approaches worth adopting in your own quarters. Here, eight good ideas from Flynn.

Photography by Sean Davidson unless noted, courtesy of Gem Wine (@gem.wine).

1. Adopt a sunny outlook.

the wine bar is on a humble block on the lower east side that&#8\2\17;s mai 12
Above: The wine bar is on a humble block on the Lower East Side that’s mainly residential. To make his establishment stand out, Flynn painted the exterior a welcoming yellow with striped awnings and a hand-painted sign. Those are vintage French school stacking stools out front. Flynn keeps a set of World of Interiors from the 1990s that he turns to for design lessons and inspiration.

2. Build a room around a few compelling ingredients.

the previous setup had white walls, round metal tables, and a shou sugi ban div 13
Above: The previous setup had white walls, round metal tables, and a shou sugi ban divider off the entry (scroll to the end to see the difference). Flynn approached the makeover with a few things he loves—a rope fish of unknown provenance from the Brimfield flea market (he attends every May and September), six small paintings commissioned from a friend, and some vintage ship models bought after going to a sailing club with his girlfriend and feeling inspired by nautical design. The room came together around these details: “Even though they’re small, these pieces inform the whole and lend it cohesion.”

Flynn built a collection of new tables and added the paneling of cherry plywood finished with a running peg rail that was made for the space by Peg and Rail of Michigan (which we’ve also used and recommend). “I wanted to create vignettes around each table,” he says. The walls are painted Benjamin Moore Paper Mache, a soft white with a touch of green. The tin ceiling is original and the painted floor was left as is. The vintage Swedish brass Bumling Pendants, which Flynn purchased online after a long hunt, were preserved from the original Gem.

3. Teach yourself what you want to know.

chef flynn took over his family&#8\2\17;s cooking after his parents divorce 14
Above: Chef Flynn took over his family’s cooking after his parents divorced and he grew tired of his mother’s repertoire: his mom is Meg and Gem is named after her. Both of his parents encouraged his passion: at one point his childhood bedroom was set up with a pro kitchen with elements—including an immersion circulator—that he received as presents over time. After years of self-learning (and home schooling), Flynn started cooking for others—and has since been invited to stage at Eleven Madison Park, Alinea, Geranium (in Copenhagen) and Maaemo (in Oslo), among others.

Flynn started building things himself four years ago when he needed shelving: the price of wood had so dramatically risen that DIY struck him as the only option. “I’ve been been buying better tools and learning as I go,” he says, “my entire TikTok  is woodworkers.”  Photograph by Lucas Creighton.

4. Enlist friends to contribute to your vision.

gem is filled with the work of young, creative friends of flynn&#8\2\17;s.  15
Above: Gem is filled with the work of young, creative friends of Flynn’s. The aforementioned paintings—which depict, at Flynn’s request, a mystery woman in a yellow raincoat—are by Philadelphia artist Sarah Goldman. LA ceramic artist Analuisa Corrigan made the Curtain Lamps for Gem using a sage matte glaze on the base and vintage textured linen for the shade. And after a trip to Portugal, where Flynn was taken by all the ceramic fish, he got New York designer-artist Shane Gabier to make him fish vases and sconces. “When the room is just lit by sconces and table lamps, it has such a nice glow.”
flynn did the carpentry work himself after investing in a festool track saw for 16
Above: Flynn did the carpentry work himself after investing in a Festool track saw for precision cutting: he built the tables out of cherry—walnut, his first choice, was too pricey—and modeled the bases after George Nakashima joinery: “traditionally, you just have a bottom beam, but mine have side beams for stability.” The tabletops are finished with durable and food-safe Rubio Monocoat. The two friends who assisted and helped with heavy lifting are Luis, a chef and wine sommelier at Gem, and Cameron, Flynn’s tennis partner, who was between jobs in creative marketing.

5. Wooden bars + burlap = a great window screen.

to mask the outside world while letting in light, flynn installed wooden rails  17
Above: To mask the outside world while letting in light, Flynn installed wooden rails in the existing window. He bought yards of burlap from Zarin, the beloved discount fabric store in the neighborhood, and used a nail gun and glue to affix it in place.

The restaurant’s open kitchen is in the back within view of these tables. It serves inventive seasonal fare: shellfish platters, lion’s mane mushroom schnitzel, and small plates, such as purple cauliflower, smoked dates, mint, and pecorino.

6. Dining chairs can be similar but different.

the chairs, flynn tells us, are &#8\2\20;from everywhere: \1st dibs, etsy,  18
Above: The chairs, Flynn tells us, are “from everywhere: 1st Dibs, Etsy, Chairish, auctions, friends.” The straight-backed versions are Vico Magistretti’s Carimate Chairs by Cassina from the 1960s and ’70s, and the round-backed designs are Charlotte Perriand Blonde Wood Dining Chairs along with vintage lookalikes. They don’t match but they look right together—and are more interesting thanks to the variety. Flynn keeps a collection of 50 chairs because several are often sidelined—Flynn fixes the frames himself and “a guy named John pulls up in a mini van and takes care of the ones that need reweaving.”

The yellow ceramic Gem Pendants are by Brooklyn artist Stiliani Moulinos. Flynn bought the half hull on the wall in an online sale from Stockholm auction house Bukowskis—it cost about $80 total with shipping.

7. Dried flowers are the perfect no-fuss plants.

during the months that fresh local flowers aren&#8\2\17;t available, string 19
Above: During the months that fresh local flowers aren’t available, string-tied bundles of hydrangea add life to the room. The flowers dry on their own and keep until spring.
the flamboyant amaranthus displayed at the bar is another plant that keeps well 20
Above: The flamboyant amaranthus displayed at the bar is another plant that keeps well—it retains its color when it dries. The bar has a rattan and wood theme: the Dutch high stools are 1960s designs by Dirk Van Sliedregt for Rohe. Flynn says he has a basement full of vintage finds but is selective about what makes it out into the open. “You can put a lot of things in a dish or a room and it will feel cohesive rather than cluttered if everything has a reason to be there.”

8. Art doesn’t have to be big to be impactful.

flynn commissioned the 6 by 8 inch paintings to introduce a bit of color and in 21
Above: Flynn commissioned the 6-by-8-inch paintings to introduce a bit of color and intrigue to the otherwise understated room. He and artist Sarah Goldman are among the only ones who know that the girl in the raincoat is slowly turning around and spitting.
each table is designed to be a little tableau. 22
Above: Each table is designed to be a little tableau.

Before

flynn bought the bumling vintage pendant lights just before opening in \20\18,  23
Above: Flynn bought the Bumling vintage pendant lights just before opening in 2018, and clustered potted plants in the entry.
the carpenter built tables had shelf style dividers and bench seating along wit 24
Above: The carpenter-built tables had shelf-style dividers and bench seating along with bentwood chairs. Small mountainscapes hung on the walls.

Gem Wine is at 116 Forsyth Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

We get some of our best ideas from inspired restaurant designs. Here are three more Shaker-inflected examples:

Also check out our Trend Alert: Feast of the (Many) Fishes: 17 Times Fish Made an Appearance Beyond the Plate.

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Gem Wine NYC 8 Design Lessons from a 25YearOld Star Chefs DIY Restaurant Makeover portrait 6
Lamp Shades

Curtain Lamp

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