“Still Superfine 20 years later”
Three women restaurant owners
on friendship, food and community
By Magdaline Davis
Photographs Angie Vasquez
Where are you from and how long have you been in Dumbo?
Tayna: I’m from Seattle, Washington. I lived in New Mexico, in Santa Fe for about five years. I’m an oil painter. I was living in the middle of the desert, and I’d been painting there for five years. I said to myself all great artists should live in New York for one year. I turned 25 and I decided to move to New York.
Laura: I’m from Ohio orgingally. Tayna and I met in New Mexico. She got here before I did and met Cara lee. She was working for a friend of mine in the film industry and and she was down here getting some props from some crazy area and she’s like wow it's really cool over here. Back then it was wild, there were like wild dogs and cone shaped piles of garbage, like perfect shaped garbage as high as the ceiling.
Cara Lee: I’m from Dallas, Texas. After I graduated high school I moved to Brooklyn in 88 to go to pratt. The whole time I was in Pratt I heard about this bohemian neighborhood in Brooklyn and that it’s really scary, and I’m like I wanna live there! I moved to Dumbo in 1992.
People seem to feel really good when they come to Super Fine, How have you kept that feeling with people over the years?
Laura: For one thing there are no vip’s, everyone's the same and everyone gets the same treatment. Everyone's very important, we treat people with respect. I think It's easy to be loving and kind, I think it's harder to be the other way around. It certainly doesn't feel good at the end of the day. It's just about mutual respect.
Cara Lee: It was already built but all the bricks were covered in white paint, there was no kitchen. It was like an auto parts warehouse. When we came in here it was a mess but I feel like I saw it right away, for what it should’ve been. When we came we just started taking away 100 years of bs that people had done to the space. We started peeling it away and the bricks were like ah that feels so good and the wood was like ah that feels so good, I just felt this energy. I've always responded to spaces, My background is in industrial and exhibit design. This is the first space I got to nurture. Every time I pulled some bullshit away I can feel the space going oh that feels so good. I didn't design it, it was already designed. I feel like we're the very first people to come into this space who were in love with everything about it. So this energy started happening, my arm hairs still stand up when I talk about it. It was really important to me when we put up the ceiling. I didn't want one spec of paint on the brick. I wanted all the surfaces to meet lovingly and everything to merge nicely. When we were doing things a lot of the workers were like, know one's gonna notice and I'm like ok I'm not know one and I'm gonna notice. Once we opened I started realizing people felt comfortable in here and it was just nice and inviting. I also realized years later. You know when you have a party at your house and you bust your but to make sure everything looks freaking great. Your friends are sitting on the couch and you accidentally leave your bedroom door open and there are clothes on the bed. Your sitting on the couch and you see dust bunnies under the bed and it's like you don't care but somehow somewhere in your mind a little bit of the magic is lost. There's love in every single corner, I just wanted to make sure no matter where people were sitting they can tell a lot went into it. I wasn’t even thinking about this consciously until I noticed people’s reactions to it. They notice not even with their eyes but maybe with their heart and soul. Even if they don’t look around it’s just there. Every single ounce of this place was thought out.
Tayna: Generations Have now been through this environment. I remember the first kid that was born in the lofts and she had her quinceanera party here. She just turned 21 and had her first drink here. I think part of what keeps things fresh is people still being invested in the longevity. So much has changed in New York, you don’t have the historical memory with places anymore. Business owners don’t have the same relationship with the city that they use to have. The ma and pa shop of New York City is different now. That’s what’s still keeping it fresh in my mind That we’re here and that it’s not so corporate or big. It’s still personal to us.
How was superfine born and what does it mean?
Laura: We wanted to come up with a name that didn’t include Cafe, restaurant, bar or any of that other stuff. We wanted it to be stand alone and as excellent as it could be. It’s a great name and its timeless too!
Cara Lee: It was a natural birth! We’ve known each other since just right after fax machines. We realized young that we had like different talents but also the same talents. Laura is an amazing chef, Tayna is an amazing organizer, and I’m an amazing builder-designer person. We started throwing these parties in our loft, We would invite friends and family to come and experience great food. Laura would create this amazing menu of small tasting items, and Tayna was really great at organizing the band that would play that night. I was really good at transforming our home to like a bar, a kitchen and dining room set up. We invited people to have good food and a good time for almost no money. Just to show that you can get the most awesome fruit of the earth which is food that came right from the earth. It wasn’t about the money. If we were doing this for the money we would not have opened a restaurant. I think the moment Superfine as a restaurant was born was during one of our parties. I’d been dj’ing all night, we’d been working all night, we transformed the space multiple times in different scenarios. It was about 5am and the sun was coming up. The three of us got together, we sat down and were looking at each other. All of our friends were having so much fun. Everybody was dancing, friends got engaged, my grandma was there! We turned to each other and we’re like this should be our job! Then we were like we gotta come up with a name. It was back in the day when you had dictionaries and they were really big and thick. Laura and I opened up this giant dictionary and we divided it in half and looked through the dictionary. We wrote down all of our favorite names, there were so many and superfine was one of them and it stuck with us!
Cara Lee: It also applies to sand paper, but food. When we realized that we could actually do this as a business we were looking around the neighborhood for places. We found this one spot on bridge street, we saw a sign in the window restaurant for sale, and we said let’s do it! It was right around bridge and front street. We found out it was going to cost 30,000 for a three year lease. Our first business meeting Tayna was being professional, Laura was playing kitchen and I was playing bar, We had no idea what we were doing. We were like sweet this is the place for us, it’s only 30,000 dollars. We had so many smart friends around us, people throughout out the neighborhood. One friend was a great architect, another a lawyer. If we didn't have smart friends and a community around us, we probably would have signed that lease. We found out later that the building was about to fall apart. The guy didn't actually own anything that he said he was going to sell us. We were so devastated.
Tayna: We opened our restaurant in a bridge workers bar, and ended up doing it for a year and a half. It was a very racist, and sexist bar. We made it safe to be diverse at the restaurant , it was amazing what we did there.
Cara Lee: Three lesbians opening up a restaurant in the back of this bridge workers bar, in the old days. The artist that didn’t know there was a place to go around here, came here! The iron workers, the bridge workers came, and people from the projects were coming over. It was incredible, Everyone had a home there it was so diverse and so different. We wanted our new place to carry over from that place where everyone felt welcome no matter what.
Tayna: That’s when it was born, what we created was the superfine supper club, so basically our restaurant was our house party and that was our rent party. And that was what we ended up creating our entire business plan of was this actualized restaurant. It’s still based on the roots of what we created on the original supper club. The formula for the super club was food, art installations, performance, midnight drag show, definitely dancing, a dj, and good alcohol. There was always an installation artist or something fashion. Superfine means of Refine taste or texture! It doesn't have to be about food. It could be about the quality of an experience. It’s a textual living breathing organic thing. Our thing organically happened, what happened around us did not organically happen. It's a very elitist environment that Dumbo is now, and we’re so old school, we’re like the goddesses of the neighborhood.
How have you maintained your friendship while maintaining a restaurant?
Laura: Drinking beer together, just kidding. Our goal with this place was to always have community. A place where artists could do there stuff. I was a fine artist but I made my way to food because I needed to make a living. We figured we had a place like superfine that was big enough. We had shows outdoors at the other smaller bar, sometimes a band would perform in the back of my pickup truck, it was amazing. We always wanted to have a place where art could be seen and heard and performed. The food and the bar made us money, I think that’s helped us keep relaxed, and not too serious. We’re not about the money necessarily, we’re about the community. Some days I come in and I’m not always a hundred percent, sometimes I don’t want to write a menu and I don’t want to play kitchen. You have to do it, It’s a job! You gotta appreciate that about yourself, and other people are going to have those kind of days too.
How important is it to you to feed your community Grass fed food?
Tayna: We think it's really important. I would say if not all, most of our meat is Grass fed, we try to know as much as we can when it comes to our food. I think our food is health conscious and not pretentious.
Cara Lee: That's what we're all about, when we started, one of our goals was to show not only the community but the world that you can eat healthy and it doesn't have to cost a lot of money. Our community feeds us and we want to feed our community.
Laura: That’s my whole thing with this restaurant, not only do I want to do right by the people I’m feeding but the environment all together. We use way more than the planet can produce. I want people to eat well.
What valuable advice have you learned that you can give to other women working together?
Cara Lee: Believe in your product and have blind faith. We just had blind faith. Great community and family and people who support you, It doesn’t have to be financially, if they come and swing a hammer that is cool too.
Tayna: I think the power of women is so extraordinary. We truly have the resources in ourselves to manifest anything. And don’t ever think that you can’t achieve your goal because you can’t arrive there financially. You just have to think in a bigger way energetically about the vision. Do self care so you can have the power of your intuition. Vision takes work and you have to be dedicated to your work.
Laura: Remember that y’all have the same goals and that it gets tough. There would be moments where Cara Lee and I have had knock down situations, where she would drive me up the wall. I know that she’s a perfectionist, But when the day was over and it was all said and done I knew that she cared. We just batted heads because our procedure is different, the way we get there is different.
What other jobs have you had over the years or is there something else you do creatively outside of the restaurant?
Tayna: Superfine has been my main job now for 20 years. I opened up a restaurant on myrtle avenue for three years. The restaurant was called “The Joint.” That was an incredible journey, very different from this one. Cara Lee and I opened up a business together called the light house which was a bear and wine kiosk inside the archway of the Manhattan bridge. I sing jazz, I studied it for ten years. I don't really sing jazz that often outside of superfine, but I think for next year that would be my challenge for my band to perform places that are not the clubs and parties that I'm producing. Before superfine I was a waitress for most of my life from age 16 and now sometimes I still waitress here at the restaurant. I write, I went to school for writing. Originally when I came to New York I was a set designer. And also the arts, multimedia arts!
Cara Lee: I went to school for graphic arts and then I accidentally discovered industrial design. So when I get to my freshman dorm in college, I did my normal set up that I had in my house. It was basically strings everywhere controlling the radio and the light switches, it was before they made remote controls because ya know I came here in 88. This friend of my roommate comes in and asks what I’m studying and then asks me if I thought about industrial and warehouse design. I didn’t know what that was or what it meant. I had to pick my major the next day. I also had two-party buses that I bought and kept for a minute.
What are your zodiac signs?
Tayna: I’m a Capricorn! There are two other people who were born on the same day as me and they’ve worked for us for 10 years. We also have a lot of Capricorn’s on the staff.
Cara Lee: I’m a Libra!
Laura: I’m a Taurus!
What are some of your personal favorites to eat on the menu?
Tayna: I eat the fish tacos every single day. The fish we work with is so good.
Cara Lee: I love the fish any way it’s served because I know it’s so fresh and so good. I love when we have the chicken salt and Boca, and the chicken breast. I like all the soup we have, and all of our pastas are great.
Laura: I love salad, and I love the fish that we do here. I always pick out all the bones and make sure there aren’t any scales. I have a really soft spot in my heart for anything noodles or pasta.
Where do you see superfine 5 + years from now?
Cara Lee: I’m picturing Super Feeno, It has everything superfine has. Awesome food, clientele, art, great music and maybe it doesn’t have walls and it’s on a beach. It’s close enough to where if you can get there you can stay for a minute if you can’t afford to fly a plane back. If you want to help in the garden or whatever. I’m picturing it near like a central or South America somewhere and in my mind. There is one special boat that takes you to Super Feeno and the locals all know about it. In my mind the location is a whole section of beach that we Will buy. We buy this whole section of beach from the locals but we‘re not going to develop on it. The land still belongs to the locals. I’m getting ahead of myself because I’m so excited. You get on the little Boat to take you to Super Feeno. And we’ll hire the fisherman, and all the local farmers. It’ll be for the environment by the environment. It’s going to be a sweet little place that’s kind of hidden and in secret. I want the locals to be sustained financially. I don’t want to mess up anything with their life.
Laura: I want to go and retire, I want to be out west. I’m done with the city. I’m ready, I want the mountains. I want to ride my motorcycle where there’s not like a thousand people around me all the time. I want us to get better and keep the integrity that we’ve maintained over the last eighteen/nineteen years!