Headley, tidying up inside his new restaurant.
Photo: Dolly Faibyshev
It’s early on a Friday night in Williamsburg, and one person is dancing at Union Pool. A version of the late-’70s power-pop anthem “Starry Eyes,” performed by the Japanese quartet the Tweezers, plays on the speakers. “Classy as hell cover!” the set’s DJ, Brooks Headley, tells me. “No one in the room is going to care about the music we’re playing, which is what we want. We’re just trying to have fun for ourselves and the seven of our friends that actually show up.” Headley, in loose-fitting work pants and a baggy sweatshirt, is here mostly because he likes to keep busy. “If I’m not working, I go insane,” he says. “For me, not having a 16-hour-a-day kind of job made me go a little batty.”
Headley has been filling his hours waiting for Superiority Burger to reopen. The original incarnation of his vegetarian counter spot, a 240-square-foot white-tiled hole-in-the-wall on 9th Street near Tompkins Square Park, closed for good in November 2021, a few months after Headley announced he was moving the restaurant to a far larger location a block and a half away.
The first Superiority Burger opened in 2015 and came together in 11 weeks. To make it happen, Headley and his partners used whatever equipment was available, like a half-size oven that either baked focaccia perfectly or completely crapped out halfway through. A few school desks were used as tables, and if Headley had to work the ice-cream machine, he did so right next to the counter. “We outgrew the space on the first day,” he says.
At the outset, the menu was supposed to be very tight (veggie burgers, broccoli salad, ice cream, and sorbet), but it kept growing as the restaurant’s popularity took off and Headley offered dozens of new items on a rotating basis: Monday nights brought “tofu-fried tofu” sandwiches; Tuesdays, “fancy desserts.” Sundays were for hero sandwiches that changed every week. It was like no other restaurant in the city — specials would often be added to the menu in the middle of service, for example — and to Headley’s friends, like the pastry chef Shuna Lydon, that’s why it worked: “My sense was that Superiority Burger was him as a whole.”
The place also helped bring about an era of great meat-free junk food. Headley’s foil-wrapped grain-and-legume patties were crumpled and smashed in a manner that perfectly replicated roadside burgers, and they predated the arrival of Impossible Burgers in New York by 13 months. Critics loved them, and crowds — lines of customers waiting to order as well as people taking food to eat on the sidewalk — became a regular presence outside.
In the summer of 2021, Headley and his business partners — Ashwin Deshmukh, the general manager Sheryl Heefner and the musician Matt Sweeney — revealed that they would move Superiority Burger to the space that had previously housed the East Village late-night staple Odessa, a plan that Headley understood might bother the Vanishing New York types but would be done in part out of respect for the Ukrainian diner’s legacy. “The city, it changes. I loved going to Odessa. That’s why I did everything in my power to get the lease,” Headley says, pointing out that Odessa’s former owners are now his landlords.
He thought it might take five months. Today, a year and a half later, he has started referring to the new Superiority Burger as “the theoretical vegetable restaurant,” though there are some indications that it’s getting close to opening. For the past few months, Headley has teased the return on Instagram with a slow drip of photos, like shots of vegan tutti-frutti pie and a golden, flaky round of potato-and-lentil pastie. One recent picture prompted a fan to comment, “Brooks (or whoever has social access) I am personally begging you to open.” As the pace of posts increased throughout January, so did the desperation among the commenters. In response to a photo of fruit cobbler, one person wrote, “Stop! For the sake of my sanity, please fucking stop!!”
Headley would like to be open by now, really, but he blames the delay on the usual bureaucratic headaches. Plus there are still some details to figure out (will music be played in the entire space? Should banquettes remain distressed or be fixed up?). Whenever it opens, the new location on Avenue A will take Superiority Burger up to roughly 80 seats from its previous count of about six. It will be open almost all day, with a liquor license that doesn’t require the restaurant to close until 4 a.m. The savory menu will be two to three times longer (Headley seems particularly excited about a cucumber sandwich; he texts me one day that it’s “for the daytime ‘tea menu’ — haha”), and for the first time, there’s a full pastry team, led by Darcy Spence, who has been assembling a roster of vegetarian desserts to fit the diner aesthetic: ricotta pie with “oranged” apricot, berry pies, and mango pie with vegan coconut custard. “They are destroying R&D,” Headley says. “They’re getting to the point where I’ve got to stop being like, ‘This is the best thing I’ve ever fucking tasted.’ I’ve got to calm down.”
The menu development is taking place inside the original Superiority Burger while the new space is being finished. Currently, the windows at the new address are papered over, and there’s a coming soon sign posted out front. Inside, a pastry case, ready to be filled with all of those pies and cakes, contains a plate of plastic spaghetti that Headley brought back from a trip to Japan. A friend who uses a wheelchair came in to help ensure that the place is accessible, and the bathroom is lined in soft-pink floral wall-paper. “I was shooting for, like, a 1971 grandma’s powder room,” Headley says, “and I think I got it pretty close.”
Growing up outside Baltimore, Headley would make frequent trips with his mother to visit his uncles in Hoboken. They introduced him to bands — the B-52’s, Talking Heads — and restaurants. In 1992, Headley dropped out of Towson University to work at a Kinko’s in Richmond, Virginia, and to tour with his band, Born Against. (The Kinko’s gig was helpful for printing out flyers.) Even though Headley cooked at the time, he had no interest in becoming a chef. “I would make food-related presents for people. I would make the worst focaccia ever and wrap it with a bow,” he says, “but it was never a plan to work in restaurants — a lot of people just fall into it.”
After touring, he went back to finish school before moving to Washington, D.C., where he got an office job organizing files. He quit a few weeks later, finding work instead at Galileo, an acclaimed Dupont Circle Italian spot, and then the Ritz-Carlton. A move west for another band called Wrangler Brutes meant finding another job, and he landed at Campanile, a Cali-Italian institution led by chef Nancy Silverton.
By 2008, Headley had moved back east and learned that Del Posto, which had opened a few years earlier, was looking for a new pastry chef. He had no formal training beyond his work experience, and little New York experience, but he wrote a letter anyway and was called in. “I guess I was just very enthusiastic,” he says.
After three tastings, Headley was hired and quickly reshaped the restaurant’s desserts, eschewing the intricate presentations typical of fine dining for subtler creations like butter-scotch semifreddo, brown-butter panna cotta, and goat-cheese mousse with celery sorbet. He was given free rein, far more than is typical for a pastry chef at an established restaurant, mostly because Del Posto’s head chef, Mark Ladner, was a fast fan.
Headley would invite musicians in to eat while they were touring through town, treating them like VIPs — “He would say, ‘Come by before we’re open for lunch and I’ll do a table for you guys and I’ll make you a bunch of special food,’” recalls the musician and sound engineer Steve Albini — and he soon became known as “the punk-rock pastry chef,” a title that didn’t accurately capture his style; he was influenced by, among others, Claudia Fleming, who is known for refined versions of homestyle desserts.
At the same time, Headley was nurturing a recreational obsession with veggie burgers. He cooked them for friends and hosted pop-ups. Eventually, it became clear that he should look for investors and turn this fascination into a business. Sweeney, a record producer and guitarist, got involved after tasting a two-week-old burger that Headley had stashed in a friend’s freezer.
On the day Headley invites me into the new Superiority Burger, he’s worried about finding an adequate supplier of vegan buns (“We’re in a purgatory stage with the buns!”) and about the soundtrack. There is music playing from Turkish radio streamed via a service that lets you listen to stations from around the world. “We found a tango channel from Reggio Emilia that fucking slays,” he tells me.
He says he and his partners are keeping the original space and have a plan for it, but they won’t reveal anything else. I ask Headley whether, given Superiority Burger’s instant success and its seemingly straightforward model to replicate, he has considered further expansion or — perish the thought — franchising. “I don’t want to have an empire of restaurants,” he says. “I just want to have one busy-as-shit, fun, kind of disjointed place in the East Village.” (There is one other Superiority Burger, in Tokyo, run by two customers who had a hard time finding vegan food in the city. Headley and his cooks helped open it in 2019, and he still makes regular trips there, mostly as an excuse to visit Japan, one of his favorite places in the world.)
The problem with expanding in a serious way is simply, he says, that “I never wanted to miss anything.” In the past when he was traveling, if he landed in New York at 6 p.m., he could be at the restaurant by 7:15. “It was my little hive,” he says. “I just want to work here and fucking die. I’m going to tell everyone that if I drop dead, keep working. Don’t even close that day — just keep going.”
Headley at the new Superiority Burger, where the gas was officially turned on last week.
Photo: Dolly Faibyshev