A seat at one of New York City’s fine-dining restaurants is often coveted and accompanied by a waitlist (or more likely a “Notify” button on Resy). HAGS, tucked away near the corner of First Avenue and 10th Street in Manhattan’s East Village—the same space where David Chang began his Momofuku empire—is no exception.
But even before opening its whimsical, yellow arched door at that prized location, HAGS was generating buzz as a queer-focused restaurant, including speculation around what it meant to “queer fine dining.” Founders Camille Lindsley and Executive Chef Telly Justice come from NYC institutions Le Bernardin and the Michelin-starred Contra, respectively. They both loved the experience of elevated dining but didn’t want to simply re-create the spaces where they honed their skills. Instead, they wanted HAGS to be a place they themselves felt at home: somewhere that prioritized care, camp and queerness.
More than a year since opening the space in the East Village, a neighborhood they chose specifically for its queer and punk history, HAGS caters to queer community while keeping its door open to everyone. (But yes, you’ll probably still need a reservation to secure a spot in the intimate space.)
We spoke with Lindsley about the origin story of HAGS and how they make fine dining fun and accessible.
You’ve both had a long tenure in the restaurant industry, specifically at fine dining establishments. Was there a specific moment when you realized a need for queer-focused fine dining in NYC?
Camille Lindsley: There was never one epiphany that led us to creating an explicitly queer fine-dining restaurant. We both love the craftsmanship of fine dining and getting to enjoy special meals at other establishments. However, it’s difficult to feel like we could ever truly be ourselves as workers, or as guests, in these environments.
There are plenty of amazing queer spaces; frequently they are more casual spaces, which are wholly necessary and have served our community for years, like dive bars, cafés and coffee shops and bookstores.
We saw a dearth of places to celebrate big moments in life as queer people, and we saw a lack of safe or empowering places of employment for folks like us who want to hone their skills in this industry.
How did you know that you wanted to fill that need and pursue it together?
CL: It all happened pretty organically. The two of us have worked together at many different restaurants and know we work well together as a team, and both feel really passionate and motivated to create a space like HAGS.
How did you choose the space? Did its history as Momofuku Ko (and before that, Momofuku Noodle Bar) play a significant role in your choice?
CL: We always had our hearts set on the East Village; we’re both the kind of queers who played in punk bands as teenagers and cooked for Food Not Bombs. The history of queerness, punk and activism in the East Village felt like a place where HAGS would make the most sense.
Many restaurants that have called the East Village home have been pushing for change and innovation in a way that resonated with our concept, and David Chang certainly was one of those chefs. We never thought we were destined for such a marquee address; we were honestly shocked when the lease was signed and keys were placed in our hands. The history of the space has definitely had an impact on our current success. There is an aura of prestige that surrounds it, and we feel incredibly lucky that we get to contribute to the legacy of 163 First Ave.
What did you envision for the space, and how is that realized in the setting today?
CL: We had the pleasure of working with absolute genius and visionary Sarah Carpenter, the architect and interior designer of HAGS. Sarah sat down with us really early on when we were first wrapping our heads about what we wanted sitting in the dining room to feel like, and quickly we could tell that she understood what we were going for based on our very abstract Pinterest board. At one point in our initial meeting, she said, “So you don’t want it to look like a restaurant?” and we knew she would get the ethos and vision. Sarah wanted the room to be an equal mix of “campy, vampy and womblike.” We love getting to work in the space she envisioned.
Part of your mission includes better labor practices like a four-day workweek. Why are such practices necessary to the service industry right now?
CL: In a post-Covid world, we saw many of the historic [labor] issues in this industry become much worse and remain in a worse place than they were a few years ago. It’s the issue we feel most strongly about trying to change for the better in the industry. Working in restaurants is very difficult work that is frequently dangerous, and the hours are long. Many have other projects they are passionate about, and the work is so demanding that a traditional five-day workweek leads to burnout.
We pay more in labor than just about any other cost, and it’s largely the reason why the prices are the way that they are. One of the central reasons we have opted for a tasting menu is to control food costs and have a more predictable prep schedule, as well as to showcase what a talented, queer kitchen can execute. Additionally, we see ourselves as providing a workplace where anyone can learn skills they would learn at other fine-dining establishments but in an affirming environment and with mentorship, time for rest and the freedom to be themselves.
The restaurant supports the queer community in many ways. Can you tell us about those initiatives and how you create a safe space for the queer community?
CL: There are many things you can point to (and lots you can’t point to because they’re immaterial) that we do to advocate for queerness at HAGS, but the bathroom is perhaps the best encapsulation of those practices. Not only is the bathroom not gendered, but it’s a fully ADA bathroom with art from a friend hung on the walls, lots of harm reduction supplies (including a sharps container, condoms and fentanyl test strips) and a fun house mirror. Bathrooms are very personal and contested spaces, and we wanted to make people feel safe and comfortable to the best of our abilities.
Each Sunday we open to the community and offer a sliding scale à la carte menu that changes weekly. Frequently, these dishes are things we are craving ourselves or are at the request of team members or regulars. We also use Sundays as an opportunity to share our platform within the food and beverage community to let others showcase their talents to the neighborhood. There are no reservations, and all wine that’s open from the week is poured at an equal flat rate. It’s as much HAGS as our tasting-menu service is, just another side of us. It’s our favorite day of the week.
At the end of the day, being able to center care for the team and care for the guest feels inherently queer to us.
Tell us about the menu concept. What can diners expect when they come in?
CL: Each day, aside from Sunday, we offer a vegan and an omnivorous tasting menu, each served with carefully considered pairings to complement each dish. Equal effort and creative labor go into both the vegan and “omni” menus; we often encourage diners to try one of each, as their personal dietary restrictions allow them, to see the full scope of what we do. As the beverage director, I strive to pick a list that has something that will spark interest and excitement from just about anyone, be they sober or a sommelier. The list spans from luxury grower champagnes and boutique burgundies to hybrid grapes grown by new winemakers in places you may have never tried wine from before.
Can you tell us where you source ingredients from and why local sourcing is an important part of your mission?
CL: When we set out to write our menus, we don’t start with defined dishes in mind at all. Instead, we find our inspiration through the vendors in the East Village and Lower East Side with whom we have close personal relationships, or from the weekly availability lists from the local farms we work closely with, or from artisans we want to support, and sometimes even from our ceramicist friends that make our plateware. Our cuisine highlights these relationships and draws our community deeper into our food. By the time a new dish hits the menu, it is hard to remember where any one idea came from. We just see our friends and the feelings they inspire on the plate in front of us.