interior of a teaching kitchen with kids and teachers

2 Restaurants, 1 School Serve Up More Inclusive Visions for Dining

HAGS, Hackney School of Food, and The Art Room share the goal of inclusive dining, which fosters a sense of community for all.

The pandemic has left its mark on the hospitality industry. New challenges have exposed age-old inequities of workers’ livelihoods and patrons’ needs, pitted against the razor-thin margins of late-stage capitalism. As Joanna Parker has written for Failed Architecture, “Architecture designed to be habitable for one kind of body is not architecture intended for the public.” Few projects express this point better than three hospitality venues recently completed in the wake of the pandemic. Opening their doors amid economic uncertainty and an ongoing public health crisis, these initiatives reimagine how people actually inhabit spaces versus how they have long been expected to. 

The latest, opened in July 2022 by chef Telly Justice and her partner, sommelier Camille Lindsley, is queer- and trans-owned fine-dining restaurant HAGS, which offers tasting menus for vegans and omnivores, and a pay-what-you-can sliding-scale option on Sundays. The snug restaurant, which sits on the first floor of a hundred-year-old building in Manhattan’s East Village, is funded by a silent investor and was designed by Sarah Carpenter of Sarah Carpenter & Studio, who brought an elegant softness and sci-fi spunk to the couple’s extraordinarily inclusive dining vision. 

interior of a restaurant dining room
In Manhattan’s East Village, a new restaurant centers both workers’ and patrons’ needs through fun and thoughtful design elements by Sarah Carpenter & Studio. For example, unlike most professional kitchens, HAGS’s is painted pink with tall narrow openings cut into one wall that provide a peek into the hallway. Anyone working the line can view cheeky art from their workstation, and anyone waiting for the bathroom can observe the kitchen activity. © SETH CAPLAN

With one natural source of light from the front windows, the dining room (ADA-compliant like the rest of the space) feels like a subterranean mother ship; its earthy taupe banquettes contrast with an electrifying chartreuse bar and matching velvet curtains overhead that enclose a chandelier of wineglasses stored vertically. 

Widened for wheelchair accessibility, the inky, maroon-painted bathroom is a place for every kind of person to “feel cared for,” says Justice. Open shelves are stocked with complimentary mints, condoms, menstrual products, and fentanyl test strips. A fun-house mirror over the sink invites play instead of intense reflection, especially for those with body dysmorphia. “It’s democratizing in how silly everybody looks in it. You never feel dehumanized by your image reflected back at you,” she says. 

Informed by the specific trauma of working in fine dining, Justice and Lindsley wanted an interior in step with their labor practices, which are also designed to minimize the most stressful aspects of restaurant work: low wages, understaffing, overbooking, and the triggering churn of a kitchen order ticket machine. By crafting a five-course tasting menu, they avoided the perceived uncertainty that accompanies à la carte dining. Seasonal ingredients are sourced from farmers’ markets and other small mission-driven purveyors, and dietary restrictions are happily accommodated. Only the core components of daily prep and service are typical. 

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interior of a restaurant with people applying makeup in mirrors
Following in the footsteps of Lower East Side restaurant Dirt Candy’s chef Amanda Cohen, HAGS has instituted a tip-optional model with a flat rate of $23 per hour for hourly staff, $70,000 salaries with benefits for managers, and all staff typically working three to four shifts per week. “We want to pay people well and reduce stress for ourselves and everybody else,” says co-owner Camille Lindsley. © SETH CAPLAN
restaurant facade

Prioritizing workers’ needs over guests’ budgets has drawn scrutiny from some, but it allows Justice and Lindsley to overstaff shifts, encourage breaks, and normalize care in an industry known for abuse. The behavior they model within their walls has been mirrored by neighbors who check in on them to “make sure that we’re feeding ourselves,” Justice says with a smile. “They want to keep the neighborhood a place for people like them and us. It’s really cool to be a part of the East Village lineage of keeping it weird.”

Collaboration with neighbors is practically built into the layout of The Art Room in Downtown Los Angeles, a 7,750-square-foot combination restaurant, art gallery, and office space that also houses the project’s design firm AUX Architecture, helmed by Brian Wickersham. The project came together during the pandemic lockdown when Wickersham repositioned it as a collective arts and hospitality venue, with veteran chef D. Brandon Walker running the restaurant and Seasons LA curating the gallery space. Like HAGS, their retrofitted building is more than a century old. Preserving that amount of embodied carbon is “the single biggest thing that we could do” in terms of sustainability, Wickersham explains. 

interior of a restaurant/art gallery
The Art Room in Downtown Los Angeles is a 7,750-square-foot hybrid restaurant and art gallery. The space also houses the office of AUX Architecture, the firm behind the project. The Art Room’s kitchen is helmed by chef and culinary educator D. Brandon Walker. With ethical labor practices in mind, staff wages average around $22 an hour and Walker also provides training for formerly incarcerated individuals for positions in his kitchen. COURTESY MANOLO LANGIS

Their grand opening has been a moving target because of supply chain issues. (As of this writing, a necessary piece of equipment is stuck in traffic on the Panama Canal.) Meanwhile, Wickersham’s design for dynamic partition walls to expand and contract the indoor/outdoor spaces was out of compliance with municipal regulations because square footage isn’t supposed to change with the click of a button. But the team has taken it all in stride. If the pandemic has taught them one thing, it’s patience. 

interior of an art gallery with a dining table set up

On the restaurant side, chef Walker aims to blur the line between fast-casual service and fine-dining quality. He chose to go fully compostable, reducing contact between staff and diners, which means a $20 breakfast burrito is served on a compostable plate and a $35 steak is cut with a bamboo knife. Eliminating dishes is new for this kitchen, but Walker eighty-sixed the role of the dishwasher years ago. To flatten the kitchen hierarchy, everyone is trained to do everything, including washing their own pots and pans. Staff wages range from $22 to $26 per hour, and universal tip sharing is mandatory. The menu is influenced by what Walker can source from Los Angeles–based Alma Backyard Farms, in an effort to remain “hyper-hyperlocal,” he says. “It isn’t at the farmers’ market. It’s right here in the hood.” The farm does more than generate fresh produce. “They are turning dirt back into soil, and they’re employing folks that are coming out of the prison system,” Walker explains. As a culinary educator, he has trained formerly incarcerated people as cooks and hired many past students to work in his kitchens. Now Walker is thrilled that some of the best locally grown produce he can buy is grown by their hands.

At the Hackney School of Food in East London, a teaching garden and classroom-style kitchen connect locals to the dining world’s culinary skills and farm-to-table processes.

The school, designed by Surman Weston, provides a unique learning environment for public-school children and adults to grow and cook food and doubles as a community space where residents can host workshops and gather outdoors. Funded by the LEAP Federation and Chefs in Schools, the project sought to bolster student enrollment and address food insecurity in the Hackney district. 

In 2018, Surman Weston won the bid to bring its design to life with a meager £300,000 budget—cobbled together mostly from school grants, fundraisers, and private donors. “We are just a small part in a project full of goodwill,” says principal Tom Surman, who led the transformation of a two-story, 506-square-foot caretaker’s house and 3,300 square feet of grounds into an interactive cookery school and edible garden. After stripping the interior to its bones, the building materials such as the new Icynene roof insulation were left exposed to show how the structure is held together, from rafter beams and lumpy ceiling insulation that kids think resembles cauliflower or lunar cheese to mismatched bricks that map where the caretaker’s cottage ends and the School of Food begins. 

aerial view of a potager garden with brick pathways
East London’s Hackney School of Food was designed to be a place where people of all ages can go to be inspired and develop knowledge and a love for cooking. Since opening, the school has expanded to include a 12,600-square-foot site that includes various gardens where students can grow their own food and community spaces that host workshops. COURTESY JIM STEPHENSON

The sterility of commercial stainless steel is balanced with warmth from birchwood and red Viroc flooring. Outside, visible gutters chart the path of rainwater to a metal basin where it is stored for garden irrigation. Everything here can be a learning opportunity: planting seeds in the soil, paddling dough into an outdoor pizza oven, collecting honey from a beehive, gathering eggs from a chicken coop, harvesting wheat grown on-site. Kids and adults with varying mobility can access the space through wide doorways, adjustable counters, and elevated garden beds. Since the inception of the project, the gardens have been substantially expanded, bringing the site to approximately 12,600 square feet. The designers identified an underused area of the school playground adjacent to the site, expanding it into an active, biodiverse green space. 

The next phase is an open-source digital toolkit designed by Surman—thanks to funding from the William Sutton Prize for Social Innovation award—that will serve as a prototype for public use, helping other schools and community groups implement their own sustainable food-focused initiatives. For Surman, the idea of sustainability is no longer measured in energy efficiency or renewables. “We now look further into the future, at societal issues as well as how we actually build.” 

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