HAGS Offers a New Concept of Queer Fine Dining

Even in a city as culinarily ambitious as New York, few addresses can claim to have housed not just one but two groundbreaking restaurants. 163 First Avenue is now one of them. Previously the original location of Momofuku Noodle Bar, the ramen hot spot that helped launch David Chang's empire, the narrow East Village space will soon be home to HAGS, the “queer” fine dining destination that Telly Justice and Camille Lindsley began to conceive after being laid off during the city's pandemic lockdown from their jobs at Contra and Aldo Sohm, respectively. "There is a point in your career where you wake up, almost from a coma, and you look around and you go, 'I haven't felt fulfilled in a while, it's time to break this cycle,'" says Justice, who serves as chef.

Having both spent years working in fine dining, Justice and Lindsley, who is HAGS's sommelier, wanted to create a new paradigm for the industry—centering the individual, celebrating the community, and inventing and innovating tirelessly. "Sometimes in fine dining and other high-minded, conceptual fields, there's almost an abstraction of the human element where we're simply attempting to make something perfect, at any means necessary, and we forget that the real art form of dining is treating ourselves perfectly, treating each other perfectly," says Justice. "The perfect product is the care."

While working in a tasting menu format at a higher-end price point, HAGS aims to establish an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere. Whereas other restaurants gush over their relationships with upstate farmers, Justice and Lindsley have also established connections throughout the East Village, hoping to counteract at least in part the gentrifying effect of fine dining. They apply a critical lens to culturally diverse ingredients and techniques before deciding whether to incorporate them, and each Sunday will offer service through a pay-what-you-can model, harking back to the celebratory queer potlucks that helped launch HAGS. Most importantly, each meal is guided by a careful conversation with the diners, focusing on their preferences, allergies, and previous experiences. "That is something that is oftentimes ironically even missing from fine dining because it feels like a one-size-fits-all approach to service," says Lindsley. "It doesn't really feel attentive or with the individual in front of you in mind, but it's a general, This is how to make people feel taken care of—and that doesn't necessarily work for everybody."

What most marks HAGS as a "queer" space might be its pervasive sense of joy. "We've crafted a pretty complex and honest way of exhibiting ourselves that we think is fun and funny and campy and ostentatious in a way that is approachable to a vast group of people," says Justice. "Because it's not fun if not everyone is having fun." Much has been made of HAGS as New York's first queer fine dining restaurant, but Lindsley points out that they are part of a vibrant and engaged community. "I really feel excited to be in this moment of queer food because there are so many people doing really exciting things and I hope that people see our model and can see that people who are queer in this industry can do whatever they want and that we can do things in a different way than has been the norm," she adds. "I hope that there are restaurants that are opening in the coming years that make us look obsolete."

For more information, please visit hagsnyc.com. HAGS will open soon at 163 First Avenue, New York. Read this story and many more in print by ordering CERO04 here.

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