HAGS is a 20-seat fine-dining concept in New York’s East Village that’s queer first and restaurant second. And the way that owners Telly Justice (she/her) and Camille Lindsley (she/her) operate their business flies in the face of convention at nearly every turn.
From a pay-what-you-can night every week and openly sharing their recipes to running labor costs at twice the industry average, the couple is proving that you don’t need to follow traditional rules to run a successful restaurant. And being known as New York’s first queer fine-dining restaurant is more than just about the food—it meant they had to define queer fine dining from a culinary perspective, as well as logistically and culturally.
“Right off the bat, we knew that if we were going to do this, we were going to have to do it in a very personal way,” says Justice, a chef who has previously worked at critically acclaimed NYC restaurants like Wildair and Contra. “Being a queer brand was never meant to be as instructional as it became, but it serendipitously became a wise choice for us, because the people who hear about us and come to us are lovely. They’re the people we want to feed.”
What it means to be a queer restaurant
Like many other hospitality workers, Justice and Lindsley found themselves with some unexpected free time in 2020. “After years of working grueling hours, we suddenly had nothing to do,” Lindsley recalls. “We started thinking: do we even want to keep doing this fine-dining grind?”
The moment of inner reflection on this existential crisis led Justice and Lindsley, a sommelier whose résumé includes high-end Aldo Sohm Wine Bar, to revisit a dream they’d always talked about but never acted on: opening a restaurant together.
Even before the pandemic, the couple had discussed the need for a space within the hospitality industry created by and for queer people—a radical departure from anything seen thus far. Though queer people have always had a huge impact in the food sector, this history isn’t necessarily reflected in high-end restaurant kitchens, which are notorious for their lack of diversity in leadership and toxic workplace cultures.
The duo, who first met while working together at restaurants in Lindsley’s hometown of Atlanta, often bantered about what this special place could look like, even laying down some basic frameworks. As Justice, who is a trans woman, explains, this long-term vision allowed them to spring into action immediately once the desire—and hunger—was there.
“We already had this foundational understanding of who we were as food workers—what our goals were, what our values were—and that put us in an advantageous place to get to work in building something immediately,” she says. “In many ways, we had a head start because we’d already planted these seeds. We just needed a little push.”
Opening the doors
HAGS opened in the summer of 2022, with Justice in the kitchen and Lindsley taking charge of beverages. “We didn’t even want to talk about the food at first—HAGS is a queer space and what we serve is secondary to building that," Justice says.
However, because of the unprecedented nature of their endeavor, they quickly garnered the attention of both local and national media outlets, even without formal PR efforts behind them.
“This is HAGS, New York’s only self-described queer fine dining restaurant,” wrote Bon Appétit magazine in July 2022. Meanwhile, The New York Times declared: “Without a doubt, the tasting-menu restaurant HAGS in the East Village is the moment. It’s nearly impossible to get into, but you should definitely try.”
The restaurant’s cheeky name, speaking to a quintessentially campy element of witchiness, took inspiration from Justice and Lindsley’s shared past playing in punk bands in their teenage years. “We initially thought of many different names that felt incredibly self-serious,” Justice says, “And then we just thought: let’s name the restaurant like we’re naming a band.”
The restaurant’s playlist, a living document that’s now 12 hours long, likewise speaks to their past lives, running the gamut from Sinéad O'Connor and Stevie Nicks to Queen Latifah and Stereolab. “We were going for really dreamy, romantic vibes—I’m an Aquarius and [Lindsley’s] a Pisces,” Justice says.
What exactly is queer food?
The menu presented a larger question: what exactly is queer food? Before opening the restaurant, the couple experimented with a series of pop-ups loosely inspired by memories of queer potlucks that they’d attended in Atlanta. Justice, who was born in Philadelphia, remembers moving to New York as a teen and discovering this sense of queer community for the first time.
“It was the first time I’d had access to queer community—you feed me, I feed you, we provide space and emotional safety for one another,” Justice remembers. “All of this taking place in the South—Southern cuisine is so important to the culture.”
Fittingly, much of the regularly rotating tasting menu—which skews vegan-friendly—leans into southern foodways, with ingredients like green tomatoes, butternut squash, and turnips making seasonal appearances. On a recent Sunday, which is the restaurant’s pay-what-you-can night, Justice served a house Frito pie made with vegan chili, green garlic, and tempeh.
Beyond Southern influences, the menu embodies the personalities of the people behind the pass and the restaurant’s aim to defy convention. “We go for boisterous flavors, lots of acidity, and bright colors,” Justice says. “We poke fun at traditional plating styles, unlearning aesthetics that’ve been drilled into us. If I’ve previously been told I can’t do something, I say: let’s make it even weirder here. Let’s add an Easter egg that nods to queer canon. At the end of the day, if it’s good, we serve it.”
Such freewheeling silliness is on display in dishes like a carrot amuse-bouche recently described in The New Yorker as “tortured to the point of parody.” In this case, the humble root vegetable is turned into a mini Pringles®, then dusted with a caramelized, dehydrated version of itself and served with a sauce made of carrots, verjus, and local tofu.
“It’s just chips and dip in a composed bite,” Justice explains. “But we’ve applied so many little inside jokes and silly thoughts that it’s become quintessentially HAGS. It’s a great way to start our tasting menu, to set the tone and say: whether you get it or not, you’re here for a good time. It’s an amuse—it should amuse you.”
That’s not to say the food and its ingredients aren’t carefully calculated and thoughtful—90% of goods and ingredients are sourced from small producers and farm collectives that the couple has direct relationships with. The tempeh comes from Boston’s Indonesian-owned BOStempeh, cashew cheese comes from Philadelphia’s Bandit, and dry goods from SOS Chefs—a pantry market located just a few blocks from the restaurant.
On the drinks front, Lindsley explains that queering the menu primarily meant making it more accessible to all guests, whether drinking or not. Non-alcoholic options are plentiful, ensuring non-drinking guests aren’t stuck with just juices or sodas. She says she wants to make beverages fun, not intimidating. To this end, the restaurant uses only one type of wine glass, eliminating some of the guesswork and pretension around the enjoyment of wine.
And rather than expecting guests to come to the table with any existing knowledge of wine, she focuses on creating thoughtful pairings to complement Justice’s vegetable-forward menu—which she says offers more freedom.
“So many of the rules around wine pairing revolve around French principles of pairing based on protein,” Lindsley says, noting the old-school rule of red wine with red meat and white wine with fish. “But vegetables have so much individual flavor—I find that classic wines aren’t always interesting with fermented foods or saucy vegetables.”
As an example, she cites a lesser-known Hungarian Tokaji white wine from winemaker Sanzon that’s been on the menu since the beginning. “What’s queer about what I do is creating that dialog and conversation around what’s happening on the plate, while showcasing flavors that might typically be overlooked,” she adds.
Speaking to the strength of working with one’s partner, Lindsley credits her ability to craft a meaningful beverage program in part to her relationship with Justice. “We frequently hear from other somms [sommeliers] that the biggest barrier is getting time with the chef, which I have in spades.”
Challenging the status quo
Outside of the food and drink, HAGS has thrown out the rule book on running a restaurant business in favor of creating a new blueprint. Notably, the majority of staff at the restaurant identify as queer. Salaried employees receive competitive benefits, while hourly employees have access to low-cost insurance.
Justice and Lindsley go to great lengths to ensure that their staff have the proper support to thrive in a fast-paced, technically demanding environment, noting that roles are specifically regimented and structured to reduce anxiety and encourage collaboration.
With the restaurant only open for dinner, working schedules are divided between 2 8-hour shifts: a morning prep shift and an evening service shift. Each employee has a list of 7 to 10 prep tasks to be completed at their leisure.
“Nobody’s really going to be surveilling you—we trust each other,” Justice says. “There’s no over-extraction during the labor-intensive part of the day. And everyone in the kitchen is cross-trained on prep, so there’s a lot of fluidity and flexibility if somebody’s sick. We’ve never had any issue honoring requests for schedule changes. And that’s really due to the nature of how supportive the staff are of one another.”
“The PM shift has a great relationship with the AM shift because they could be the AM team on some days,” she adds. “There’s a lot of reverence, respect, and mutuality between the 2 hemispheres of work.”
Justice elaborates that this sense of collaboration is further achieved through an emphasis on training, mentorship, and education. All of the restaurant’s recipes, as well as the prep list, can be found in a public folder so anyone can prepare them.
“This is a space where individual growth and development [are] charted and tracked,” Justice says. “We work with each team member individually. We ask: do you feel good about this workload today? Do you have the capacity to execute the prep list? Can I take something off the list? And we get this paid back when staff members come to us and ask us if they can help us with what we’re working on.”
This communal environment also has benefits in the kitchen, where team members often contribute to and create their own dishes. Refuting any mythologies surrounding chefs, Justice speaks humbly about her culinary abilities, crediting the success of the restaurant to her team.
Building to last
All of this being said, Justice and Lindsley are under no illusion that for a business to be able to care for its employees like this, it must also be profitable. And, with all eyes on them to create a blueprint for a thriving queer business, they acknowledge that it’s been necessary to rethink the business model, taking learnings from past failures and successes to make responsible decisions.
“It’s a weird business model that came through years of us running restaurants from the back end, twiddling with numbers, and seeing how far you can push it before they bite the dust,” Justice says. “No one should get into the restaurant business if they haven’t experienced closing a restaurant before. We had a wealth of understanding on how this business works before we got into the business of trying to change it.”
They’re also transparent about the fact that HAGS wouldn’t have been possible without an initial investor—which underscores a larger conversation. “Budgets have gotten insanely inflated, and it’s only getting worse,” Justice says. “For the dining public to understand what we’re doing and better respect the people working in these spaces, I think it’s necessary, for better or worse, to reframe restaurants as commissioned works—like Renaissance paintings.”
HAGS is a small dining room with a short service. And though the current menu includes a chicken dish and a steelhead trout dish, the focus on vegetables supports a sensible margin. Then there’s the pricing: a 4-course tasting menu goes for $100, while 6 courses go for $150—which isn’t too far off the $195 price tag of Eleven Madison Park’s 6-course bar tasting menu.
Though some may balk at these prices, HAGS’ innovative business model has allowed the restaurant to put people before profit while remaining financially viable. Most notably, the restaurant’s labor is its most significant expense—something that’s categorically unheard of in the hospitality industry.
“Usually, labor is the 4th or 5th cost component,” Justice explains, “We’ve skewed all the costs towards labor first and food last. Our menu costs what it does [because] we’re paying people as much as we can get away with—60% of our costs go to our people. I run a food cost of sub-20% and Lindsley runs a beverage cost that’s sub-20%, which is unheard of in our industry.” It’s widely accepted that labor costs typically range between 20% and 40% of a restaurant’s total sales.
Pay what you can
HAGS’ marriage of business innovation with a queer, community-first approach might be best summed up in their Sunday-night service, where diners pay what they can or eat for free. The goal is to offer something for the neighborhood—including seniors, students, or anyone who might feel apprehensive about eating at a fine-dining restaurant filled with loud and rowdy queers.
To make this possible, Justice and Lindsley explain they built this pay-what-you-wish night into their business model as a loss leader—an unprofitable item that restaurants put on their menu simply because it’s important to have, such as oysters. Going back to the spirit of the potluck dinners that first inspired the concept, the loss leader at HAGS is free food.
“We started building the business model knowing we’d have at least one day with a sliding-scale menu,” Lindsley says. “Why Sunday? Telly and I wanted to close a long week with a reminder that food is a powerful and important tool for community building.”
Lindsley concludes that seeing the same faces every week—from other queer chefs to neighborhood locals and college-aged queers—and witnessing the selflessness and generosity of guests have been the most rewarding parts of the experience of opening HAGS.
“Some people pay $5 or nothing at all—and others come in, don’t order anything, but pay for someone else who can’t afford to pay,” she says. “It’s moved people to tears—it moves us to tears frequently. It’s connected us to people and to ourselves.”
Five ways HAGS is using queer values to do things differently
1. People first: 60% of HAGS’ costs go to its staff (well above industry norms, which tend to be between 20% and 40% of a restaurant’s total sales).
2. Staff care: Employees only work in 8-hour shifts, split into 2 groups (an AM prep shift and a PM service shift), to reduce overwork and burnout.
3. Open for all: All of the restaurant’s recipes can be found in a public folder.
4. Community-centered: HAGS runs a pay-what-you-can night each week, built into their business model as a loss leader.
5. A refreshing take: The menu is loud, vibrant, whimsical, with some inside jokes—food that matches the expression of the people who make it and eat it.