In Renovator’s Notebook, homeowners open up about the nitty-gritty of their remodels: How long it really took; how much it actually cost; what went horribly wrong; and what went wonderfully, serendipitously, it’s-all-worth-it-in-the-end right. For more tips to nail your next project, follow @reno_notebook.

Location: Lower East Side, Manhattan

Square footage: 380

Top priority: Open an intimate wine bar that feels less like a restaurant and more like hanging out at your best friend’s place. 

Forty is the exact amount of steps it takes for Flynn McGarry to get from Gem—the 23-year-old chef’s first permanent restaurant—and Gem Wine, his latest endeavor. During his travels to Paris, Copenhagen, and London, McGarry saw similar setups, where a nice, fancy restaurant’s more relaxed sister wine bar is located just around the corner. “I loved the relationship between the two, seeing the cooks running back and forth with loaves of bread and bottles of wine,” he says. So it didn’t matter all that much to McGarry that his new watering hole spans a mere 380 square feet—the location far outweighed the size. “The kitchen is literally like the one in my apartment,” he shares. “I had to figure out how to squeeze as much out of it as possible.”

After buying the place (once used as a vegetable storage unit) in March 2021, McGarry got right to work. While he hired Essential Contracting to help with gutting the space and installing a new HVAC system, he and his friends chipped away at the interiors slowly. One day he’d focus on building a coatrack; another he’d glue broken floor tiles together. McGarry found the same escape in woodworking that he does in peeling an onion, except he says carpentry is a more intense version of cooking. “I’ll spend six hours trying to make sure one cut is perfect,” he explains. “It became very therapeutic.” Part of the reason he took on so much of the construction himself was to avoid paying $10,000 to have someone else custom-design everything—something he learned from running a restaurant for four years. “I have to know how to fix everything,” he points out. 

Gem Wine, under construction.

To really make the space feel less restaurant-y and more like a friend’s apartment, McGarry filled the place with figurines and paintings he scooped up during an antiquing spree. He even brought over books and vases from his own home. “All of my friends were like, how much of your budget was spent on knickknacks?” he says with a laugh. “But I think it makes the space feel so much more personal.” Ahead, in his own words, the chef invites us inside Gem Wine.

Splurge: A Level Playing Field

There was no way we could make anything in this space completely level (it’s just how it is with old buildings). I hired a woodworker to build out the kitchen and its two 5-foot-long countertops. He prefabricated everything in his shop down to a T, but on install day the pieces still had to be sawed by hand to make sure there weren’t gaps showing everywhere. All the wood is solid cherry, which is stupidly expensive (I spent $5,000 in total on wood, not including the tables that were made by Grain Wood Studio). I made up for it by constructing almost everything else myself, saving around $8,000.

Save: Mixed Flooring

From the beginning I was fixated on terracotta floors. It’s something I never really see in  New York City, plus I grew up with them in California. I also liked the idea of evoking the South of France in Chinatown, so I found these that ship through Country Floors. I ordered them even before signing the lease, because I knew they’d take at least four months to arrive. Even though I accounted for the classic 30 percent extra, half of them were broken when they showed up. The problem was, when I went back to buy replacements, they were all out of the hexagon tiles. I glued together as many as I could and filled in the rest with square-shaped versions. It actually ended up looking very natural, switching the styles where the kitchen area and bathroom begin. 

Splurge: Surfaces With Luster

After painting the walls in Farrow & Ball’s Middleton Pink and the ceiling in India Yellow, there was so much warmth, that I felt like the space needed some contrast. The kitchen was the perfect place for that: Cadco, based in Chinatown, lined the back wall with aluminum sheets, and we hung these old cobalt blue lights to create a nice juxtaposition. 

Splurge: A Window Onto the World

We’re waiting on some permits, but we’re going to be adding a whole outside dining area with antique French elementary school chairs. For now we can crack open the windows (replacing the whole storefront cost $3,000). I want it to feel like you could say hi to someone on the street, or you’d be walking by and see your friend inside and come in for a glass of wine. 

Save: A Breath of Fresh Air

We brought the ceiling paint color down around the kitchen “divider” wall to help detract from the fact that there was a soffit there. I hate the look of vents, so I drilled some holes into a piece of wood and fastened it over the vent to hide it. The biggest thing I’ve learned about woodworking these past two years is to spend money on the right tools (when I saved up for the best saw, every cut was perfectly straight). I’ve probably messed up 1,000 things, but if you want to do it well, you need to keep trying and learning. 

Splurge: Soft Lighting

I wanted the lights in here to be something people hadn’t seen before. I found this vintage canvas pendant lamp by a designer named Jan Wickelgren through a vendor on Etsy that had a warm glow to it. I asked if the person had it anymore and he said, “No, but maybe my friend does. Let me make some calls.” They found me one more. Still, it felt off to have three dining tables and two lights. Luckily, two weeks before we opened, they messaged me saying they found another. Each pendant was $600.

I went with lamps on the tables because I didn’t want to spend a million dollars on candles. My friend Ana Corrigan, who is a ceramist in Los Angeles, made these pieces with shades that almost look like skirts. Everyone tells me the place resembles a library, and I say, “It is; it’s like a wine library.” You can grab a bottle off the shelf just as you would a book.

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