HAGS Reimagines Fine Dining

This playful New York City destination serves up a seasonal, sustainable, customizable tasting menu with up to three desserts — it’s your party.



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“THIS CAN’T BE a mushroom,” I thought to myself, certain that it was a tender beef short rib on creamy mashed potatoes. But it was a slice of seared lion's mane melting on my tongue, with a smear of celery root cream, and it was paired with a robust Beaujolais to further enhance the meaty trickery. This playful tone defined my night at HAGS. The 20-seat restaurant in New York City’s East Village was founded by partners in business and life chef Telly Justice, a James Beard Award semifinalist, and beverage director Camille Lindsley, a sommelier whose credits include Aldo Sohm Wine Bar. Cheekily named for “haggard, witchy women” as well as the old-school yearbook signoff “Have A Good Summer,” the restaurant defines itself as being “by queer people, for all people,” and this joyful vision is woven through its food, wine, decor, music, and service.

HAGS was born out of the pandemic — more specifically, the “existential terror of going back to the places we were working,” Justice tells me. In March 2020, Justice and Lindsley were both furloughed from their fine-dining positions in the city, which led to internal reflection. “Fine dining felt a bit like a dead end,” Lindsley says. “We felt as if there wasn't ever going to be a place where we could be ourselves and take food and beverage to the level that we feel passionate about. So we thought, ‘If we could do something for people like us, what could that be?’”



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Justice and Lindsley settled on a small space in Manhattan’s East Village, a downtown neighborhood considered a breeding ground for experimental, boundary-pushing concepts. In fact, HAGS occupies the same address where David Chang founded his Momofuku empire 20 years ago, and serves as a welcome newcomer to the neighborhood’s storied, vibrant queer community.

HAGS incorporates “many winks and nods” to this legacy. A little bowl filled with pronoun pins sits on every dining table, for example. Much of the friendly team is queer, avoids gendered language, and wears gender-neutral plum uniforms reminiscent of lab coats. Queer anthems provide the soundtrack to your dinner, practically begging you to dance as you eat. Justice even transforms the customarily exclusive tasting-menu format into an accessible one: Seasonal dishes are largely gluten-free and vegan, and guests are invited to take their pick of three or five courses from the menu’s offerings, which hover around nine dishes. “You can eat any way you want,” Justice says. “If you want to have three desserts, or you want to have dessert while your dining companion has the lamb entree, you can do that. It’s your dinner, not mine. You learn so much from your guests when they’re given the option.”


While the cuisine, too, resists a label, it’s clearly deeply rooted in Justice’s background — from her experience navigating the world as a trans-queer person to her culinary history, starting with her childhood in Philadelphia, where family dinner was valued and the food, typically takeout or microwaveable, was not. She eventually found her calling, first in anarchist vegan kitchens, then fine-dining establishments in the South, like Kimball House in Atlanta and Michelin-starred Contra in New York City. However, despite her talent, she never felt embraced by the industry. This resulted in a “flip the birds,” “punk feeling” approach to cooking that combs through her experiences, picking flavors and techniques with a “reclaim and reframe” ethos she combines with fresh ingredients from local farmers’ markets, small-batch vendors, and SOS Chefs, a nearby insiders’ cooking market stocked with spices, oils, and more from all over the world.

This story comes through in nearly every course. My introductory bite, a savory “Pringle” that swapped a potato slice for roughly five pounds of carrots (seriously), and the parting gift, just-sweet-enough sesame brittle, were easy callbacks to the chef’s upbringing. Those early vegan kitchens can be seen in the tempeh, which is shipped fresh to HAGS weekly and prepared in an inventive schnitzel style. Meanwhile, Justice’s fine-dining past came through in mesmerizing raw and caramelized beets (which were spritzed tableside with rosewater from a vintage perfume bottle), succulent skate with preserved cherries, and perfectly braised lamb that I devoured in roughly 60 seconds.

Lindsley’s wine pairings harmonized with each of Justice’s plates. Those exquisite beets, for example, were intensified by a punchy sparkling mead from Enlightenment Wines in Brooklyn; the citrus in the lamb jus counterbalanced a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon out of Washington.

Eating at HAGS, I felt as if I was invited to a dream dinner party hosted at my friends’ apartment, disarmed and free to be me. It’s this magical spirit of belonging that drives HAGS’ future. “Beyond just doing a tasting menu four days a week, we want to contribute to the East Village and strengthen the relationships that we’re building here,” Justice says. One initiative that gives back is “Pay what you can” Sundays, an opportunity to share luxury-forward “comfy, classics” — think croque monsieurs, with an option of shaved truffles, and lobster rolls — with a broader set. Guest sommeliers and chefs are on the horizon, as are later hours to attract the industry crowd and community-building programming, such as clothing swaps and movie nights.

“HAGS will be a forever-changing project,” Justice says. “Most restaurants at the fine-dining level seek this unattainable consistency and perfection — and we’re doing the exact opposite. We chase our passions wherever they go.”


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Our Contributors

Jackie Risser Writer

Jackie Risser is Associate Creative Director of Branded Content at Departures. Based in Brooklyn, she has written all kinds of words for lifestyle and fashion brands, including Zola, Rent the Runway, and Self magazine. She can also do the worm.

Nico Schinco Photographer

Nico Schinco is a photographer living in New York. Working in food, travel, and editorial, his work has been published by The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Esquire, and The Wall Street Journal.


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