At HAGS in New York City, Fine Dining Goes Queer

Two boundary-pushing chefs have transformed a tiny East Village restaurant into a space that welcomes everyone. The delicious, inventive food is almost secondary.

The two founders of HAGS Restaurant sitting at table

Telly Justice and Camille Lindsley are the founders of Hags, a fine-dining restaurant that is unabashedly queer. “We want to feed people as they are,” says Justice.

Photo by Seth Caplan

If an explicitly queer restaurant opens in a relatively queer neighborhood in a queer-friendly city, is it really even queer? The answer is, I think, yes. And also, no. And also: It turns out that queerness maybe means something bigger and more radical that could nourish us all.

I found myself pondering questions about identity and physical space as I enjoyed a six-course dinner with friends in late May at Hags, an explicitly queer-identified fine-dining restaurant in New York City’s East Village. I wondered what it meant to be a queer fine-dining restaurant in general, but especially in the East Village, which is maybe not exactly the gay haven of the West Village, but literally on its fringe and, perhaps not unrelated, a historical epicenter of more fringe, punk queers. It’s one thing to open a gay bar I suppose. If you’re a man looking to hook up with other men, the Cubbyhole is a more efficient bet than a sports bar in Midtown. But people don’t go to fine-dining establishments to mix and mingle; they go with their fancy friends to have a fancy meal (or play fancy for the night). Not to be crass, but we know that a lot of the things happening at the Cubbyhole on a Tuesday night are definitely, explicitly gay. Was me eating a vegan dish with deliciously stuffed morels also implicitly or explicitly gay?

While all this fascinates me philosophically, on a practical level I couldn’t care less. Because the food at Hags is just insanely good. Telly Justice, the chef, came up in vegan cooking. The restaurant offers two six-course tasting menus—one vegan, one omnivore. It was fun to go with a group and share both, but while the omnivore dishes were fantastic, the vegan coursing stretched my sense of culinary possibility. When I went, the first course was a little array of fava beans with magically thin perfect circles of kohlrabi balanced on each bean like a hat. One dish featured nasturtiums and tofu, but the star was a simple artichoke heart, perfectly seasoned and cooked; my whole table marveled at it, as though experiencing this vegetable wholly anew. And I will go on record as despising uni, but on the omnivore menu, there was an uni dish with sour cream and onion spaetzle, adorned with baby fiddleheads and brussels sprouts, that I might dream about for eternity.

Interior of restaurant

Hags frequently hosts “pay what you can” dinners, as part of its commitment to inclusivity.

Photos by Seth Caplan

It is, of course, not cheap. This is fine dining, after all, and Hags is a thimble of a restaurant serving long meals without high turnover. But two notes on this point. First, whereas many fancy tasting menus leave me wondering exactly why they cost that much, Hags’s omnivore menu ($150) and vegan menu ($140) offered sufficiently generous portions with a more-than-abundant artistry that felt utterly worth it, speaking as someone who can afford that sort of splurge. And for those who can’t—and perhaps as an explicit nod to the inclusivity that lies at the core of queerness at its best—Hags also frequently hosts no-reservations Sunday night “pay what you can” dinners. Literally, those who cannot pay don’t have to. It’s a lovely service and statement.

But was the food queer? It was inventive, for sure, and delicious, definitely—two adjectives I would personally argue apply 1000 percent to queer people, but I guess not only queer people. Then was the space queer? Sort of. There are house-made pronoun pins on each table for guests to wear and self-identify if they choose, and a funhouse-type mirror in the bathroom that is, if not queer, definitely askew. (It’s not intended as a commentary on body dysmorphia, as has widely been misreported, but “I think it puts folks at ease in the space,” said Justice over email.) And I guess the dusty pink velvet booths reminded me of vulvas, but they also reminded me of Millennials. So that could go either way.

The friends I invited to dinner—all of them straight, because I wanted to see if they felt somehow more queer while dining at HAGS—were making similar observations, that the food was clearly amazing but the queer part was more hazy or even a gimmick. “If this is what being gay tastes like, I’m ready to join,” one straight friend joked.

I was convinced that Hags’s food was transcendent but its framing little more than clever marketing until I noticed a table being seated on the other side of the restaurant from us. Like ours, it was a party of four, but one of the men was wearing a black and neon-green funky tracksuit with a see-through white mesh top underneath. When he took off his jacket and I saw his nipples, I realized that what’s queer about Hags might not be what it is, but what it isn’t. Hags is not some stuffy New York fine-dining restaurant where even my straight friends might feel like they have to zip themselves into a certain definition of acceptable presentation in order to fit in, and probably still not feel welcome because on some level those places are designed not just to feel fancy but also elite. They certainly wouldn’t make the queerest among us feel very welcome. This guy and his nipples might not have felt as welcome at Per Se, per se.

At Hags, you don’t need to shut some part of yourself down in order to have an amazing culinary experience. “We wanted to open a space where the person that you are would not stand in the way of you enjoying the fruits of our labor. We want to feed people as they are,” Justice told me. Just like the chef and the staff get to be their full queer selves, so do diners—queer, not queer, somewhere in between. Radical acceptance and inclusion are the prophetic gifts queer people bring to the world. And maybe Hags—by being so overtly, celebratorily queer—is challenging the fine-dining world to be a little more queer, too.

Sally Kohn is a television commentator, writer, and executive presence coach working with top executives and political leaders.
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