Q+A: Superfine

Shifting socio-political, economic, and geographic tides stir cultures and lives, and in recent decades Brooklyn–and DUMBO especially–have become ultimate icons of changing times. Still, Superfine remains a lighthouse above rapid currents. Beyond exquisite dining, a concept project that once catered to a squatter’s population of artists and was built to enable the expression of a neighborhood's vibe rises to exemplify how the spirit of community building effectively adapts to new conditions.

Over eighteen years ago Laura Taylor, sculptor and 35-year chef, joined forces with oil painter Tanya Rynd of Seattle and industrial designer Cara Lee Sparry of Texas in an ambitious project that likened itself more to an art experiment than to a business venture. What started as a supper club in a loft–featuring tasting menus paired with music, art installations and guest participation–and which catered to a population whose closest watering hole was a neighborhood away, has become a grassroots community experience in restaurant form which Superfine has executed ever since.

“We want people to come together and continue this dialogue of what it means to break bread. Supper club participants were committed to the full experience. It’s beyond the restaurant experience, and a big part of what we have been doing for a long time,” Tanya recalls.

R-L: Tanya, Laura (in the window), and Cara Lee
R-L: Tanya, Laura (in the window), and Cara Lee

Jump ahead nearly two decades, and you can find the original triad of Superfine's founding partners progressing this dialogue, pairing super-fine menus with art and music under the rambling of the Manhattan Bridge. After a two year hiatus, chef Laura Taylor has returned to the kitchen's helm. Her philosophy, like Superfine’s, is direct communication: fresh, organic food straight from the farm with a 24-hour, zero food waste policy. Like its patronage, Superfine's menu changes every day. Laura's freezer contains only the occasional calamari and sometimes some green chilis flown in from New Mexico (where Laura first met Tanya), which one can find in a green chili lunch served to live bluegrass music every Sunday from 12pm – 3pm, an old supper club tradition entertaining new crowds.

Chorizo tacos
Chorizo tacos

“Big space lends itself to big ideas. I moved from New Mexico, a place with big sky big horizon" noted Tanya. "It was the same here in DUMBO: you could look in that direction and see a storm, and the other direction and see a sunset. DUMBO, 1993, was big enough that I could see large expanses.”

With a blooming populace, competition may be stiffer along Front Street–where Superfine became an official establishment one month after September 11th, 2001–but it remains a neighborhood staple. The magic beans it grew from is what makes it stand out today: it’s three founders, refined masters of grassroots collaboration.

“We literally had no money," she continued, "but we had a lot of vibe and we went with that as actual currency. Superfine was a barn raising, it took the whole community to raise this up; people from this real hardcore grassroots community saw an opportunity for Superfine as a meeting place for people to en-vibe.”

Cara Lee Sparry, Superfine co-founder
Cara Lee Sparry, Superfine co-founder

A lot of those people literally helped build the dream. Cara Lee, an industrial designer who had worked with the United Nations before dedicating herself to Superfine, collaborated with local artists and contractors from Smack Mellon, a DUMBO art gallery and collective, to design and build out the ground floor of 126 Front Street. After raising $35,000 on $500 donations from the community, Superfine was born.

Ever since, this crazy work of art and love has been kept fresh and energized by founders who remain onsite managers, with a spirit, quality, and open attitude that have helped Superfine flourish in the face of change. Rotating art exhibits line Superfine’s walls, overlooking live music and dining tables that rarely see a shortage of patrons converging in a space designed to stimulate participation.

DUMBO’s influx of tourists, residents, and businesses hasn’t hurt the establishment, but it does influence the accessibility of a place that has always strived to be an affordable meeting ground for all ages and economic status. Says Tanya, “the neighborhood becoming a public destination is a curveball, sometimes makes it feel like less of a small neighborhood, like there’s less need for people to know each other. But I think that the need for people to know each others' neighbors is so important, and that’s what’s going to keep New York healthy and vital. Because of overpopulation and development we’re seeing space shrink, and a lot of big ideas getting smaller. I’m very interested in how to keep big open space for big ideas.”

Live at the Archway, the brainchild and collaborative effort of Superfine and the DUMBO Improvement District, embodies Superfine's spirit, pairing art, music, food, and participation in community events easily accessible to the public. During an event, in the Archway under the Manhattan Bridge just two blocks from their home base on Front Street, one can find the Archway Lighthouse (a bar created in collaboration with Tanya & Cara Lee and the DUMBO Improvement District) standing tall amongst a sea of hundreds of people, dancing, laughing, and most importantly, en-vibing.

"I'm excited to be alive right now," exclaimed Tanya. "It's not going to be about money. It's going to be about mass communication. We don't know how the world is going to change, or how New York will develop in this new era. The currency we still have is to communicate and activate each other through art. Superfine is an owner-based project, as such it won't be here forever. But the more we can articulate and exemplify what did work on the grassroots level, the larger the legacy our project will leave behind."

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