Photography: Atisha Paulson
You first begin to sense that Le Turtle is unlike any other restaurant when you visit its website. Instead of a page with an “About” and “Menu,” the splash for the Lower East Side spot lists just the name and address against a pale pink background — click the “Le Turtle” and you’re brought to a page with a film in progress (the films are ever changing and include a dinner scene from Alien, a car crashing through a bridge, a woman caressing a tiger … you get the idea) and four more clickable glyphs, where you can then summon a menu with items such as kohlrabi bisque and a whole chicken for two.
“Yeah, for some reason, people get really angry about the website,” laughs Carlos Quirarte, who co-owns Le Turtle with Taavo Somer. Quirarte may be most known in restaurant circles for the Smile, his NoHo place, which has been a low-key favorite among fashion types since it opened on Bond Street in 2009. Somer’s restaurant Freemans, of course, arguably ushered in the lumberjack-chic aesthetic that the Smile hews to — filament bulbs, reclaimed wood, mason jars. It may be a surprise then that the new co-venture — and its website — deviates so much from the stylistic tropes one would expect.
In the center of the room (with brick walls that have been painted white) is a bar in travertine marble. The tables (also marble) are flanked by sleek wooden Danish chairs by Sibast. The pendant lights hanging over diners are a gleaming gold, more Tom Dixon than Davy Crockett. Banquettes are a rich caramel leather, and the blinds that provide privacy from the street have a suburban vibe that somehow works in lower Manhattan. If you had to describe the look, it would be ’80s Scandinavian luxe. “You know, Taavo and I have known each other a long time, and when we thought about doing this, we weren’t trying to be cool. We just wanted to have fun. Taavo designed it like this because he was tired of seeing old s***,” says Quirarte. “I remember the first time we spoke about it, he said, ‘I’m thinking natural leather, plywood, travertine, and concrete.’ I said, ‘I don’t know what the f**k you’re talking about, but I trust you.’” Somer, for his part, cites Italian architect Carlo Scarpa as a major influence. You can see Scarpa’s clean-lined articulations in the concrete shelving, the lines of the bar, and the mixing of metal and cement. Somer has refitted the concept for 2016, though — it’s playful, not reverent.
That’s probably because the original idea for the restaurant started as a joke. “We were sending each other photos of turtles, and it was this ongoing thing,” says Quirarte, “and one day I just tossed the idea around to some friends, and it just stuck.” Hence, the piece of art that has pride of place in the room, designed by artist and restaurant partner Nate Lowman: A turtle shell composed of scrap marble pieces. “We didn’t really set out to follow any rules with this place,” says Quirarte, “so with the website or the name or the design, it’s funny when people get so angry about it because it just messes with their idea of what a restaurant is supposed to be. We just wanted to make a place where we could hang out, just like Smile or Freemans.”
The restaurant has been met with measured if quizzical praise from the food establishment — Pete Wells in his New York Times review said of a private table perched next to the bar, “It’s like a private joke that’s funny even though I suspected I didn’t quite entirely get it” — but for scenesters who come to restaurants, yes, for the food, but also for the ambience and the crowd and the ineffable cool of being at the restaurant of the moment, where you’re as likely to spot model Freja Beha as you are celeb trainer Bob Harper, reviews don’t really matter. What matters is that Quirarte and Somer have struck on something of a vibe—cool, unpretentious, and undeniably new. As we were conducting the interview one afternoon before the restaurant opened, the founder of website Guest of a Guest, Rachelle Hruska (as well as hotelier Sean MacPherson’s wife), showed up for an impromptu photo shoot. “That’s kind of been the surprising thing about this place,” says Quirarte, “is that we don’t expect everyone to get it, but the people who do have just embraced it so much. That’s all we could hope for. We want you to feel so comfortable that it becomes like your living room.”