HAGS Wants To Be NYC’s Best Version Of A Queer Potluck
Chef Telly Justice and sommelier Camille Lindsley unveil their plans for their restaurant and recommend some NYC queer-owned businesses and spaces.
It’s easy to miss the small graffitied storefront on 1st Avenue and 10th Street in the East Village that will soon house HAGS, an “intimate restaurant by queer people for all people.” Opening in early 2022, HAGS is a joint venture from chef Telly Justice and sommelier Camille Lindsley.
Justice and Lindsley had been loosely planning some kind of collaboration since they met in Atlanta in 2015. “We met working together in restaurants, and fell in love and started dating, and were constantly thinking of silly ideas for restaurants,” says Lindsley. “One of our initial ideas was to open a haunted AirB&B in Savannah, Georgia.”
In 2020, their plans crystalized when COVID cost them their jobs. “We were both furloughed,” Justice explains, “It was the first time in our careers that we’d really taken a significant break and thought about ourselves, and what we wanted to do. When we came back to the city, we started in earnest.”
“We were toying around with a couple of different names,” Lindsley begins.
“They were all so bad,” Justice interjects.
photo credit: Telly Justice and Camille Lindsley in the pre-demolition HAGS space. Photo: Emily Schindler
Eventually, the pair settled on HAGS. “We were thinking about names that are about femininity, but that are unpopular,” Lindsley continues. “It’s both ‘have a good summer’ and a slant against ‘old hags,’ or witchy women—so, we thought it would be fun.”
The space will seat 20 people, and Justice, who will be cooking nightly, has plans for a set menu. “I don’t like to call it a tasting menu because I feel like that embeds us into the idea of this pretension that we’re trying to distance ourselves from,” she says.
The menu will focus on seasonal ingredients featuring some Southern techniques and flavors. “Both of us made most of our careers in the South,” she says. “That’s what we do, and that’s what we know.” At its core, though, Justice and Lindsley’s menu is a reflection of their queer experience. “Queer potlucks, picnics in the park, and sardines on the beach—these formative queer hangout moments that are our most significant food memories—that’s what’s driving the vision of the menu,” Justice says.
From the name to the food and beverage design, HAGS has been built by Justice and Lindsley to be intentionally queer—a concept largely foreign to the restaurant industry. “I’ve been doing this for 16 years, and I’ve never cooked with another trans person,” says Justice. “I’ve never seen one in a kitchen, besides myself. It’s been rare to see another queer person in the kitchen.”
Running a queer-owned business is about more than aesthetics and representation for Justice and Lindsley—it’s about community and inclusivity as well. They’re positioning HAGS as a safe queer space, with plans for programming like “Pay What You Can Sundays” in which a menu will be offered on a sliding scale to whoever is hungry. “If we’re pitching ourselves to queer people,” Lindsley says, “we want to invite all queer people. Having at least a day where anybody, of any intersection, can come and enjoy it in any way that they want is really important.”
In the same spirit, Justice and Lindsley are passionate about supporting other queer-owned businesses and spaces in and around New York. Here are a few of their favorites.
HAGS’ Favorite New York Orgs and Spaces
Lil' Deb's Oasis
“When we first decided to make serious moves towards realizing HAGS, we talked a lot about the various restaurants we held in high regard … who we could look to in our pursuit of building a delightfully queer and fun space,” Justice says of this tropical comfort food spot in Hudson, New York.
“Lil Deb’s Oasis was always the first name on every list we made. Their food, decor and ambiance, their hospitality—it’s all so dreamy. We have something of a restaurant crush on them. The Kinderhook Farm pork tamales with scallion, green sauce, and yassa, or the lamb merguez with red lentil dal, black garlic, kimchi, and cacao have me yearning for a quick trip out of the city! Please, if you do nothing else in this life, go eat at Lil Deb’s Oasis. It’s important.”
Food is just as important as activism to Justice and Lindsley, which is why Nuestra Mesa—a volunteer-run kitchen collective specializing in fundraising initiatives for mutual aid in Brooklyn—is one of their first recommendations to come to mind.
“We are so in awe of their work and spirit,” Justice and Lindsley say. “Every Nuestra Mesa event we’ve been to has been a little bit different, but equally exciting!” Some of their favorites from these events have included dishes like sorullitos de maiz with mayoketchup, and chuletas fritas with pickled onion and charred pepper. “We don’t want to imagine a world without folks like Nuestra Mesa. Their vision and determination literally changes lives in our neighborhoods and reminds us that we can do it too! We all have a responsibility to participate in mutual aid.”
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photo credit: Teddy Wolfe
“This is the food I crave on a day off after a long, sweaty, grueling week,” Justice and Lindsley say of West Village Italian greatest hit Via Carota. “[Owners] Jodi and Rita understand the delicate dance of caring for folks. The food is simple-esque and reserved-seeming, yet they’re deceptive in their humility! They’ve managed a miraculous way of balancing nuanced dining with lustful cravings. We feel both serene and carnal when we are eating in their space. Our all-time favorites that shouldn’t be missed are the lovingly stacked and layered piselli (a salad with peas and prosciutto), the luscious burrata e verdure (fresh burrata cheese with one of my favorite Italian condiments: caponata), and the broccoletti (a traditional preparation of broccoli rabe Telly grew up eating).”
photo credit: Teddy Wolff
Chilled sesame noodles and “criss cross shrooms” are a couple of favorites from Kopitiam, which serves all kinds of Malaysian dishes in lower Manhattan. “Kopitiam is absolutely top of our list for grabbing food to take to Seward Park with friends and enjoy while we chat about making restaurants better places for queer folks,” the couple explains. “One day soon we will do a double-lunch at Kopitiam and Chef Pang’s wife’s restaurant Public Village that’s nearby on Essex!”
photo credit: Teddy Wolff
Dacha 46 began as a pop-up from chefs Jess and Trina Quinn, centering around Latvian and Ukrainian food. When Justice and Lindsley met Jess and Trina, they immediately hit it off. “We felt warmed by their friendliness (and a piece of cake they graciously brought us),” Lindsley explains. “We feel so lucky to be in community with these two, and love to see queers repping food from immigrant communities, especially in Brooklyn. Oftentimes, pop-ups (and many restaurants) feel unequal in the proficiency of their savory and sweet programs, but Dacha 46 is different. Their savory pelmenis and sweet cakes delight in equal measure.”
Dacha 46 Is A Queer Love Letter To Eastern European Cuisine
It’s important to Justice and Lindsley that they support other activists in the field. Auxillio and Ediciones are two projects built to address racial disparity in food by providing accessible food programming as well as organizing mutual aid efforts. “Auxilio and Ediciones were founded by a team of queers we love and are lucky to call friends: Zacarías González, Raquel Makler, Tony Ortiz, Kia Damon, Hai Vo, and Mohammed Fayaz,” Justice and Lindsley say.
“If you’ve been to a block party, a wine dinner, or pop-up this past year, it’s likely the team was there making things run smoothly, pouring fun wines, feeding you delicious food, and generally setting a lovely vibe. The goal of these projects is to include Black, BIPOC, trans, and queer folks who are otherwise excluded from both the cooking of, and enjoying of, world-class food.”
KIT is permanently closed
Chef Libby Willis’ latest project, KIT (or Keep In Touch), is a queer collaborative food space in the former Meme’s Diner space in Prospect Heights. “We are so sad to have never made it to Meme’s Diner,” say Justice and Lindsley. They recently cooked at a pop-up at KIT and were struck by the warmth and community.
“Popping up at KIT we felt so at ease and were reminded of a lot of the queer gatherings of our youth that were centered around talking about food, sharing fresh baked goods, [and] pouring each other splashes of wine, kombucha, and cocktails,” says Justice.
“The space serves the community in many ways by offering both coffee in the morning, rotating pop-ups, and expertly curated wines from Black Cat Wines (plus jelly cakes from Solid Wiggles!). Libby and Katie are such a sweet couple, and we are so thankful for what they do for the community!”