Odessa, a Ukrainian diner in the heart of New York’s East Village, was a legendary institution for 35 years. Then it closed. Now the space is home to a vegetarian burger joint deemed “the buzziest restaurant in America” by GQ. (Cue “Circle of Life.”) Does Superiority Burger merit such breathless? Who cares? The real draw is Brett Martin’s elbows-on-the-table profile of the restaurant; if the food is anywhere near as viscerally enjoyable as the story, it’s well worth the superlatives.
Though Headley arrives early in the morning to do prep work and develop new dishes, and has lately been in charge of cooking the daily family meal for staff, he spends little time in the kitchen during service. Instead, he’s in constant motion on the floor, wearing his paper hat, black hoodie, dark green pants, and clogs. He checks in on tables, runs out burgers, and rushes to clear plates as quickly as they are done, a touch he says is borrowed from Roll-N-Roaster, the venerable Sheepshead Bay roast-beef restaurant. If there’s been one complaint these first weeks, he says, it’s that service is too fast. Often, he’ll bustle in one direction, only to pull up short as though he’s forgotten what he was doing, and then run off in another. In fact, he’s monitoring music volumes, which vary wildly from song to song and spot to spot, in part because he insisted on replicating Odessa’s vintage ceiling speakers instead of installing a modern sound system. For each dinner service, he creates a fourteen-hour playlist, which he then DJs in real time from his phone, adjusting to the shifting energy of the room. (If the mark of a truly great restaurant soundtrack is regularly defeating Shazam, Headley’s playlist achieves it tonight, by my count, in five songs.) On most nights he clocks over 35,000 steps according to the device on his wrist, without venturing beyond the short walk to his apartment and the restaurant floor.