The dining room at 163 First Avenue in New York’s East Village is barely big enough to fit two people standing side by side. Any sunlight that hits the front of the cramped building is choked out before making its way through a tiny window that looks out onto the street. There was a time when all of this discomfort added to the allure of David Chang’s restaurant empire, when he used the space to launch lauded restaurants that still exist in some form today: his first restaurant, Noodle Bar, and later, Ko. For most of the years Chang occupied 163 First Avenue, it was nearly impossible to get into. The stiff stools lining the wooden chef’s counter did not have backs to lean on. Substitutions were frowned upon, snapping photographs was a no-no, and hearing chefs curse loudly as they plated dishes in the open kitchen made the whole ordeal feel very “punk rock.” The cramped quarters and general stiffness weren’t addressed as much as considered part of the restaurant’s appeal.
Telly Justice and Camille Lindsley would like for you to picture the restaurant bright and welcoming, with big front windows that flood with light, and colorful walls that make you feel warm and happy. They stand in the very same narrow East Village kitchen, holding paint panels up against the wall, envisioning the dining room as it will be when they open their restaurant here in April. The menu at HAGS will accommodate any number of substitutions and dietary restrictions. The chairs will be comfortable enough that you won’t be limping back into the night after a long dinner. Waiters will sit, relaxed at your table while they take an order, or pause in the rush of dinner service to try a new wine and catch up with a regular.
The concept at New York’s latest fine dining restaurant could not be further from that of the building’s past incarnations — or of pretty much any other upscale restaurant in New York, for that matter, but Justice and Lindsley share Chang’s desire to turn the concept of fine dining on its head. “We would have been so sad to just open another [restaurant],” Justice says. “But at the end of the day, we’re opening a little boutique, fine dining restaurant in Manhattan.” So what is HAGS, if not just another costly culinary experience in a cramped dining room? It is a space, as Lindsley and Justice see it (and hope you will, too) where queerness comes first, and all else comes second.
Telly Justice started her career as an 18-year-old cook in vegan cafes and anarchist kitchens — the kind of places with poetry readings at night and a library’s worth of political manifestos in the dining rooms. She thrived in those environments, where she could “wear a dress to work and learn how to dice a tomato.” She was a fast study, and though she says she “didn’t have any life-sustaining skill [or] know how to cook anything,” she soon enough found herself ready for and craving a more technical culinary education.
But as Justice, now 34, went in search of a kitchen where she could further sharpen her skills, she bumped up against more than just difficult techniques. “I didn’t foresee that my trans identity was going to create a stumbling block to my success in the kitchen,” she says. “I didn’t have an awareness of kitchen culture at all. So in my mind, I was like, I am who I am. I love to cook. This is going to be great.” After a stint cooking in Atlanta, in 2011 Justice secured a job as a cook at a buzzy open kitchen restaurant in Philadelphia — with chefs essentially performing for a captive audience of diners sitting just feet away. “They offered me a job and I said, ‘You know, I’m trans and I use she/her pronouns.’ And I distinctly remember the chef on the other side of the phone said, ‘Well, not here. You’re not going to be out here.’”
Others might have hung up and looked for work elsewhere. Instead, Justice showed up the next day, knife roll in hand, an apron over her shoulder. “I got very angry and I settled into this place, like, ‘I’m going to be the best cook at this restaurant.’ And I kept pushing that field goal a little bit further everywhere I went. I became the best cook at that restaurant. And then I wanted to move to New York City and I wanted to work in Michelin-starred kitchens. I wanted to be the best cooks in those kitchens. And I never stopped being angry.” Justice went on to work the line at beloved New York restaurants including Contra, Wildair, and the now-closed Alder. She moved up the chain of command with ease, but not for a single moment did she feel comfortable.
Camille Lindsley, Justice’s romantic and business partner, has always been surrounded by food, but never thought she’d end up in professional kitchens. Now 29, Lindsley spent her teenage years surrounded by a community of “queer weirdos, anarchists, wanting to cook food and do potlucks and dumpster dive for bread and things like that,” she says. Then, much like now, as she and Justice build their restaurant, food was a means by which to commune. It was never a pursuit that put technique and culinary prowess above all else — a core tenet of much of fine dining. When Lindsley first found work in professional kitchens, she was struck by just how much of what she loved about cooking was missing. “I always had a really political relationship with food,” she says. “When I started working in restaurants, I realized that the world that I had been in was not at all the world that existed in restaurants.” Instead, she found that “horrible things are said to me and to other people all the time. Sexual harassment and assault are just rampant in this industry, and racism and homophobia are rampant as well.”
There was a dissonance to being in such grueling work environments, when Lindsley’s own relationship with food had always been so joyful. But restaurant work wasn’t all downside. “Telly and I met working at [my] first restaurant job, and Telly was well into her career. I had no idea how much of an accomplished chef she was.” Working together at Kimball House in Decatur, Georgia in 2015, they became inseparable. A few years later, before the pair made their way to New York, they worked together again at another Atlanta-area restaurant where Justice was chef de cuisine, and Lindsley was bar manager. “We realized that we wanted to do something creative together and cultivate a space. And we had gone through a couple of different ideas in our years together, both romantically and also working together.”
Before the pandemic hit, Lindsley was working at Aldo Sohm, the wine bar connected to New York’s three-Michelin-starred Le Bernardin, and was on track to join the restaurant’s team of sommeliers. Justice was splitting her time between the kitchens of Michelin-starred Contra and its offshoot, Wildair. But as the virus spread and the restaurant industry all but shut down in New York City, both Lindsley and Justice found themselves out of work. The longer they were out of work, the harder it was for either to imagine going back to the status quo that had defined their lives in hospitality.
It was at this point they asked themselves what it would look like to stop being so angry all the time. What would it take?
The answer to that question is HAGS. The restaurant’s name is a nod to “old haggard witchy women,” its capitalization both a promise to be loud and unapologetic in everything it does, and a goofy acronym recalling an old-school yearbook sign-off: Have A Great Summer! “As queers in this industry, we have barely survived by being quiet and invisible,” says Justice of the campy, head-scratcher name. “We had to resist that urge to be small and inoffensive with our first restaurant if it were ever going to be a meaningfully safe space.”
Justice and Lindsley always knew that when they opened their first restaurant, it would have some queer sensibilities, but until the pandemic, Justice says, “we didn’t imagine that it was going to lead with queerness, until we decided to center ourselves in our work. And then it was a no-brainer: This is going to be queer first, restaurant second. It has to be.” There are all sorts of blueprints for opening a new restaurant, but when it comes to distilling the spirit of queerness — and everything that means to Justice and Lindsley — into four walls and a kitchen, HAGS is in uncharted territory.
There’s a lot the couple know they don’t want their restaurant to be. After dedicating so much of their lives to kitchens and hospitality, Justice and Lindsley have come to hate the way rigid fine dining restaurants forced them to shrink, the way restaurants claim to evoke the spirit of “dinner parties” but are so often cold and formal affairs, the strict hierarchies and the rampant abuse. When the pair launched a crowdfunding campaign to support the opening of their own “community driven tasting menu restaurant,” their description of HAGS barely sounded like a restaurant at all. “How often have you felt unseen, uncared-for, intimidated, or uninvited in a finer dining environment? At HAGS, we are on a quest to make you feel comfortable, celebrated and nourished AS YOU ARE,” reads the fundraising page. The campaign describes a restaurant that hosts after-hour parties “just ‘cause,” offers wall space to a rotating cast of artists to display their work, and encourages people to get up from their tables and dance if the music hits right.
As HAGS comes together, the couple is focused on how diners will feel when they step inside. “I hope that people are like, ‘You know what, I’m going to bring my own fried chicken for the staff to eat,’” says Justice, of a kitchen culture where interactions between staff and customers go beyond turning out plates of food for strangers to eat. “I want to encourage people to make the space their dinner party, not our dinner party. We’re just there to facilitate it.” On Sundays, meals will be offered on a sliding scale, for those who may otherwise be excluded from the luxury of fine dining. The menu will be flexible, and Justice and Lindsley will welcome diners with pretty much any dietary restrictions. Recipes from each night’s service will be shared online, or printed out and tucked into the pockets of happy guests as they head back into the bustle of the East Village. And the staff will get comfortable, too, sitting down while they take orders, dancing through the dining room as music blares through the speaker system. In an industry where toughness and the ability to work grueling hours through discomfort and exhaustion are still seen, largely, as positive attributes, prioritizing the emotional and physical comfort of kitchen and front-of-house workers is a radical idea in and of itself.
If all of this sounds more like a chaotic, jubilant celebration than a fine dining restaurant, that’s exactly what Justice and Lindsley are going for. HAGS is set to be less tasting counter, more queer potluck, orchestrated by a gaggle of friends and lovers, artists and cooks.
Where some new restaurants might turn to iconic chefs or restaurants of the past for inspiration, the potlucks that shaped so much of both Lindsley and Justice’s lives as young queer people are the closest thing to a North Star that they have. “In some ways potlucks, in our experience, were these moments for queer elders to show queer babies in the community: ‘This is what the community looks like. This is what the community does. We are here to nourish ourselves. We’re here to share skills. We’re here to have a good time because queerness doesn’t have to be about suffering,’” says Justice. “We just kept coming back to this memory of being 20 years old, and the vulnerability of cooking something that means something to you, for people that you love.”
These events may have revolved around food, but they were rarely about food. “The potluck was always about just grabbing what you’ve got in the kitchen, turning it into some kind of mush, it can be delicious, it can be shit, we can throw it into the trash and totally ignore that it happened,” says Justice, “but we’re going to come together and we’re going to talk and we’re going to gossip and we’re going to lift each other up and we’re going to cry and we’re going to lip sync Cher, and it’s going to be transformative.” Of course, there are limits to how much a restaurant can feel like a potluck or a dinner party. But as the pair remake 163 First Avenue, the ethos of the queer potluck, in particular, is driving more than any specific culinary point of view. It’s shaping how they dream of a restaurant where queerness comes first.
In a recent Instagram Q&A — which Justice and Lindsley host most weeks as they prepare to open — they received a version of the same question that they’ve been asked over and over: What will be on the menu at HAGS? It’s a simple question, one most restaurateurs would be happy to answer. But the question feels antithetical to what the couple want HAGS to be: Food will be central to what HAGS does, but the same unseriousness that made those queer potlucks feel so free and accepting will be at the core of every dinner service.
Even when pressed by the most persistent journalist, the couple is hesitant to offer dish descriptions. Instead, Justice and Lindsley bubble over with excitement as they describe a menu constantly evolving in response not just to the seasons, but to the wants and needs of customers, and the energy of the staff. That means dinner offerings could change any given night, when a party is gluten free, or completely sober, or has three children that won’t stop crying and think the fish course looks gross. “You can make somebody’s life better with food,” says Justice. “You can have somebody come in, sit down, eat your food, and leave feeling phenomenal. That’s what food is supposed to do.”
The best way to understand what kind of food HAGS will serve is, like so much about the restaurant, wrapped up in queerness. “My identity, of living in this world in a trans body, leads me towards needing to question and investigate all dogmatically held beliefs in the kitchen,” says Justice. “Where somebody might just automatically sear something, I want to question whether it would be more ‘me’ to steam it, to be gentle with it, to cook something slowly. What if I slowed down how quickly I work?”
As she and Lindsley start to hire staff for the restaurant, Justice is thinking about how she’ll convey this cooking philosophy to other cooks as she teaches them to make each dish. “These are things that are important to me, and I’m willing to educate anybody, but it’s so much easier to just start with somebody that is already of that mindset and maybe even challenges me to go further.” It’s that second part — finding fellow cooks and front-of-house staff that understand the experience of queerness, and how it relates to food — that takes time, care, and patience.
There is a distinction, Justice and Lindsley have noticed as they begin to look for staff, between a business that employs queer people, and one that feels intrinsically queer. As the concept of the queer restaurant has gained prominence in the last few years, there’s been a surge of new restaurants where queer cooks and waitstaff take center stage, where the music is strange and eclectic and undeniably gay; where, perhaps, glowing disco balls turn lazily overhead. And while all of those choices can create a beautiful, energetic experience, and one that reads as unquestionably queer, Justice and Lindsley believe restaurants have to do more.
“The queer restaurant community has just exploded in the past year. And I think that that’s fantastic,” says Justice. But while she’s noticed plenty of queer-led restaurants working hard to staff their teams with talented queer people, she’s seen less energy dedicated “to really com[ing] together to figure out what our practices are, what our bylaws are, how we’re going to take care of our community with our space, and what it looks like to uplift each other when we can’t hire everybody.”
In short, how can a queer restaurant be more than just another buzzy place to eat or drink? How can a queer restaurant serve to improve the lives of its diners and its staff alike?
As much time as Lindsley and Justice spend thinking about how to operate HAGS outside of the hierarchies and constraints of traditional restaurant culture, there are still bricks to lay, and unglamorous work to be done: chairs to buy, walls to paint, kitchen equipment to source from the restaurant supply, and about a thousand permits to sign and date and file before their little restaurant on First Avenue feels the way they want it to.
As they lay out the blueprint for their restaurant, they’re also drawing out plans for a less concrete sort of construction. For Lindsley and Justice, opening HAGS is as much about creating a path for a new sort of business — a non-restaurant, if you will — as it is about serving excellent food and packing the house each night. That means ensuring that, while there aren’t a lot of other restaurants that model themselves after queer potlucks, or refuse to share their menus before opening, HAGS doesn’t remain one-of-a-kind for long. “We shouldn’t be the first [of any kind of restaurant],” says Lindsley. “We don’t want to be the only one. So we’re going to give as much information to everybody as possible, so that other folks can do what they will with it, maybe even open their own restaurant.”
When Justice thinks about making the building blocks of this business available to others who want to follow suit, it’s not just about sharing her philosophy with other queer aspiring restaurant owners or making a tiny 20-seat fine dining restaurant feel like a family affair. She’s intent on sharing her recipes with diners at HAGS, and on the web, leaving few mysteries as to the food she cooks each night at her restaurant. If you want to learn how to cook a favorite dish from your meal at HAGS, Justice wants to make that possible.
“When I think about the existential dilemma of being passionate about food, but being trans or being disabled and not having the emotional endurance to withstand a decade in this industry, in fine dining kitchens, it is really hard,” says Justice. Though Justice’s own identity is intrinsically tied to her experience working in traditional fine dining kitchens, she spends a lot of time thinking about a world where queer people with ambitions to cook and feed others don’t feel a pressure to trace her steps. “I don’t want anybody else to have to go through what I did. So if they can learn from my recipes and not be in those spaces, that’s what I want. Whatever we have, we want to make sure that everybody can have it, too.”
Justin J Wee is a Brooklyn-based photographer, and needs his fries to be crispy.