Telly Justice and Camille Lindsley are creating a blueprint for fine dining’s queer future with their upcoming New York City opening, HAGS
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,