How the owners behind HAGS turned a famous — and famously dark and cramped — Momofuku space into a colorful restaurant that’s decidedly queer
My first time walking into HAGS, a queer fine dining destination in the East Village, I thought I would be flooded with memories. I thought it would be obvious what it had been, the bones of its previous life pushing through the skin of its walls. But among the bar’s drapery, the soft booths, the lime green accents and the heart-shaped pink lights that adorn each table, it felt like a singular space, something new and weird and decidedly queer. I was surprised to find I wasn’t thinking of all the dinners I’d had in this room, which had defined dining in the early aughts in New York City not just for me, but for basically the whole country. The transformation was sort of an amazing feat.
HAGS sits at 163 First Avenue in Manhattan, which from 2004 to 2007 was the original location of Momofuku Noodle Bar. It was famously spare and cramped. New York Magazine then described its “nearly unpassable, narrow aisle of stools and its starkly functional, brightly lit setting.” Its uncomfortableness was part of the romance, the idea that you were one of the chosen few entering this secret, nearly unmarked room to eat an impeccable bowl of ramen. Later, as the brand expanded, the address was the home of Momofuku Ko, and after that, the first location of David Chang’s fast-food endeavor Fuku.
In 2021 the restaurant went on the rental market, and initially, it didn’t seem like the kind of place HAGS owners and couple Telly Justice and Camille Lindsley were going for. Their requirements included things like lots of natural light and a warm, soft presence. “I don’t know if you remember the old Momofuku space, but it didn’t have any windows or natural light onto the street. It was completely blocked off,” says Sarah Carpenter of Sarah Carpenter & Studio, the design team that built out HAGS.
But then again, it’s rare to find a Manhattan restaurant space that doesn’t have problems. Carpenter, who had a hand in helping find 163 First Avenue, says that despite its shortcomings, it had potential. “They always knew that they wanted the space to be small and intimate,” says Carpenter. “I think because it really enables them to have just work-life balance and staff treatment, that was really essential to their ethos.” The HAGS team was up for the challenge of not just how to make the old Momofuku dining room different, but how to make it queer.
Justice never anticipated the pair would be operating their queer take on tasting menus in a place with such history. “It was maybe a fiber of self-sabotaging,” she says, “because we were like ‘this is Momofuku Ko, we’re never going to get the lease.’” This assumption allowed Justice and Lindsley to be slightly fantastical in their ideas. They wanted natural light, plush surfaces, and no right angles because “right angles are straight,” says Justice, halfway joking. These ideas were formed without consideration for the physical realities of any potential location. But Carpenter ran with it. “[She] took our incredibly inane and erratic mood board,” says Justice. “It was like pictures of people’s lips and orchids and weird stuff, like a shucked oyster, and she really fleshed this out.”
Of course, the biggest challenges weren’t the sexy ones: 163 First Avenue needed almost a complete demolition. The HVAC system was busted. The plumbing was old. “Deciding that it was imperative to design the space for ADA compliance, and it being such an incredibly small space, there were a lot of surprise factors of like, how do we get one more inch?” says Justice. “How do we push this wall in this kitchen a little bit further so that a wheelchair can reasonably access the bathroom?”
But once they got everything functioning, Carpenter was then tasked with taking this dark, angular space and transforming it into something radically different, complete with a window to the street that never existed. Carpenter says she was aesthetically inspired first and foremost by Justice and Lindsley’s relationship. Running a restaurant as a couple can be famously disastrous, so Carpenter thought, “Okay, these two are partners in life. They really love each other. We want to make sure they still love each other when the restaurant opens.”
That influenced the layout of the bar and the kitchen, making it open “so they can catch glances of each other throughout the service.” It influenced the colors, like lime green and pink, which Carpenter says she chose to match Justice’s ever-evolving hair. And while building only round corners was impossible in a room this small, as rounded corners usually take up more space than right angles, Carpenter found ways to embody the soft, inviting ethos Justice and Lindsley wanted. The bar has a padded armrest. The upholstery is tufted. The lime green paint has a soft visual texture to it. Even the heart-shaped lamps on the table are squishable.
For Justice, however, the best part of the remodel was the exterior, which transformed the black, thatched metal gateway to Momofuku into a psychedelic, Gaudí-esque opening. “It’s so inviting, this concave, punched-out, sloping portal into like this other world off the street,” she says. “You enter it and you come into this little den, I think it’s really transportive.” And even though it’s weird and singular, it fits in with the rest of the neighborhood, a place with a multiethnic, countercultural, punk rock history, which was important to Justice. “Our individuality matters, our personalities, our identities matter, but we’re a part of this larger community, and I feel like the frontage really captures that for me.”
More than anything, Justice and Carpenter knew people would be looking at the facade, wondering what had replaced the restaurant that launched an empire. “There was something that was really pivotal in that space before and can you match that?” says Carpenter. And not just match it, but make it queer — something that is nearly impossible to define. What makes a window queer, or a table, or an angle? Queerness is not found in objects, but in feelings, which means any design choices had to convey intimacy and warmth, and be equally welcoming and weird. The result looks nothing like what was there before. But the portal paves the way to a restaurant that may turn into something just as iconic.
Christian Rodriguez is a New York City-based photographer interested in creating work that dives into his diasporic roots. He has been published in the New York Times and New York magazine, among others.