Despite the fact that no one knows what truly lies beyond its doors yet, the highly anticipated restaurant HAGS, from first-time restaurant co-founders Telly Justice and Camille Lindsley, has garnered almost immediate acclaim for being New York City’s first fine dining restaurant that focuses on and is founded by queer people—but the establishment achieves so much more than that. Located where the original Momofuku Noodle Bar was in the East Village, HAGS upends the very notion of what fine dining is—from applying a queer lens throughout to labor practices structured around a four-day work week and food sourced directly from the neighborhood. At the up-and-coming eatery, queer is praxis, and the result is an intimate, campy dining experience where everyone is welcome.
For the founders and couple (who are going on seven years), HAGS has always been a part of their relationship, a shared fantasy they can build together over late-night drinks on a hard night. Imagining their ideal restaurant wasn’t just a bonding experience, but it was also a survival tactic. “It was escapism from how difficult our roles and responsibilities in the industry have been,” says Justice, who worked in the food industry for 16 years and previously came from Michelin-starred Contra. She notes how a lack of representation and respectability for people who are transgender permeates the industry, but HAGs was a fanciful respite from it all.
During the pandemic, furlough turned this fantasy into reality. As Lindsley, who has working as a sommelier for Le Bernardin and is herself a veteran within the space, tells us, “For a lot of people who were furloughed from their jobs in the restaurant industry, there’s sort of this existential crisis…it’s like flight or fight.” Empowered by the conversations that were happening in 2020, the duo decided to fight and began working on HAGS in July of that year, securing an investor by January 2021. Now, a little over a year later, they’re slated to open in the third week of June.
The restaurant, which seats about 20 people, is structured around a five-course tasting menu, an homage to the couple’s experiences with queer potlucks. However, the food (which defies any one genre or cuisine) is always subject to change when the pair feel like it, a strategy that keep things fun and exciting for both the cooks and patrons. What does remain the same is their dedication to community, a vital aspect that is often life-saving for people who are queer. One way this dedication manifests is in HAGS’ ingredient sourcing. “Rather than a farm-to-table, greenwashing spin on our practices, I like to put relationships first. We source as many things as we can directly from the East Village,” explains Justice. “So we’re building these very close and personal relationship with the people that we purvey from and that’s as significant to us as how many miles away it is.”
“How do we build a restaurant space, public space and a luxury space where the people that are typically made to feel othered or different feel like the belle of the ball?”
Knowing firsthand what it feels like to be marginalized, Justice and Lindsley put community and inclusivity front and center at HAGS. The task, says Justice, was “how do we build a restaurant space, public space and a luxury space where the people that are typically made to feel othered or different feel like the belle of the ball?” To do so, the founders orient every aspect of the restaurant around queer people, including the playlist, organizations they partner with, the interview process and more. As people who have intimate experiences with building safe spaces, accountability processes and trust within their community, the founders are particularly equipped to do the same here.
In fact, despite being a luxury eatery, HAGS makes space for those who don’t typically have the financial means to dine there. On Sundays, the establishment operates on a pay-what-you-can concept, so others in the community can still take part.
Waiters, line cooks and dish washers are also equally vital to the community HAGS is building, which is why HAGS’ labor structure differs radically from the typical and often overworked layout in food service. Everyone is paid the same (as HAGS is tip-less), encouraged to center their needs above the restaurant, guaranteed a two-day weekend (because HAGS is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays) and is cross trained in both front and back of house duties. “The more experience I had with more positions, the more empathy I had with the rest of my co workers, because unless you’ve done that job, it’s kind of hard to do sympathize or empathize with the unique struggles for each position in the restaurant,” continues Lindsley. Being trained in all positions will, according to the co-founder, “build a team that feels invested in each other’s success.”
While the restaurant is still undergoing the last of its renovations, Justice and Lindsley assure us that seduction, camp, glitter and neon hues are sure to make an appearance but not in a kitsch way. Merging the luxury and service of Midtown with the grit and spirit of downtown, HAGS elevates the whimsical, fantastical and, in essence, the queer. “It’s kind of Clueless meets Barbarella meets Le Bernardin,” laughs Justice.
If it all seems incongruous and vague, that’s because it is and that’s precisely the point. “We’re a fine dining restaurant and we’re a queer fine dining restaurant. What that means for us is not just that we ourselves are queer people and therefore the restaurant is queer, what that means is that we are trying to approach things holding ambiguity and defiance of categorization as core values,” Lindsley explains.
These core values can be summarized by the restaurant’s own name, HAGS. Both an acronym of the common yearbook signature, “Have a good summer,” and a celebratory reclamation of the term for old, witchy women, the tongue-in-cheek name never alludes to what food or experience may actually lay behind its signage—other than brevity and a promise to embrace anything or anyone once considered weird.
Images courtesy of HAGS