History on the Half Shell

Elizabeth Pochoda Furniture & Decorative Arts

A view of the dining room, where arched mirrors alternate with panels of William Morris wallcoverings, below spandrels decorated with spiraling Lincrusta designs. Photograph by Lizzie Munro.

If Brooklyn can be said to have an official bird it must be the crane, that mechanical raptor looming over every brick and brownstone neighborhood, flying in steel beams for the mega-story buildings that ring this boomtown. I live here, and while I’m glad Brooklyn is thriving, I often feel like I’m tucked at the bottom of a gigantic letterbox protected only by the grace of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Not far from my home is another surprising survivor of our nineteenth-century cityscape—Gage & Tollner, “the very famous restaurant in Brooklyn” as its website proclaims. It is indeed that. Founded in 1879 and moved down the street to its location at 372 Fulton Street in 1892, G&T is certainly famous for many things—excellent food, handsome decor, reliable hospitality—and has been for a very long time. Over the decades it generated a passionate and protective loyalty, so much so that in 1974 the building was landmarked, and in 1975 it became, and here is an astonishing fact, only the third landmarked interior in New York, after Grant’s Tomb and the New York Public Library.

The restaurant’s bar in a photograph of 1939. Center for Brooklyn History, Brooklyn Public Library, New York.
Ed Dewey, whose family owned Gage & Tollner from 1919 to 1988, shown lighting a gas chandelier in a photograph of 1956. Center for Brooklyn History.

That Gage & Tollner reopened after seventeen years in the wilderness, during which its decor was guarded by Landmarks while it was occupied by a succession of interlopers—TGI Friday’s, Arby’s, and a bazaar selling clothes and jewelry—is another miracle, this one a collaboration between the Landmarks Commission and three restaurateurs from Brooklyn who understand how history should live in the present. Their newly popular G&T engages vigorously with the past and is neither a temple of food, nor a historic relic. Just how they have restored this jewel without allowing it to become precious is worth considering, but first a bit of history.

When the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, Brooklyn was still its own city, and for a long time afterwards remained the third largest in the country. Fulton Street, its commercial hub, was lined with shops and department stores and conveniently located near courthouses and government offices. Fulton continued to thrive after 1883, making an oyster and chop house with a reputation for excellence a natural magnet for discerning diners and committed gluttons on both sides of the river. The celebrity roll call was long (Diamond Jim Brady was a regular in the 1890s as was Truman Capote in the 1950s and ’60s), and the local following was loyal. And so it continued through the decades.

Exterior of the re-opened Gage & Tollner at 372 Fulton Street. Photograph by Hamish Smyth for Order Design.
Staff outside the restaurant in a photograph of c. 1942. Center for Brooklyn History, Brooklyn Daily Eagle Photographs.

By the time I first ate there in 1979, Gage & Tollner was still running on atmosphere and reliable food. Then came 1988 and a great leap forward: a new owner, Peter Aschkenasy, hired Edna Lewis, a seventy-two-year-old African American chef with roots in the South, a passion for properly sourced ingredients, and somewhat secretive techniques. Lewis streamlined the menu, adding specialties like spoon bread, she-crab soup, and excellent fruit pies. The “very famous restaurant in Brooklyn” became way more so, and, for the first time, not a few of the diners were Black (by some accounts Black patrons were not served at G&T until the 1960s). This was a Golden Age.

Lewis went back to Virginia in 1995 and Gage & Tollner was sold to Joe Chirico, a local restaurateur who made invaluable improvements to both the historic decor and infrastructure. So far so good it’s true, and yet I am not alone in reporting that the food at that point was lousy. Ruth Reichl, intrepid restaurant critic for the New York Times, visited in 1996, noting somewhat reluctantly that though the lobster was tough, the steak subpar, and the mashed potatoes lumpy, people continued to visit. But protective loyalty only goes so far, and in 2004 the building was sold again, this time to a developer who rented it to the aforementioned chains until it was finally shuttered in 2016, its landmarked portico collapsing, and Fulton Street now lined with the customary twenty-first-century eateries—Dippin’ Dots, Panda Express, and the inevitable Home of the Whopper to name a nearby few.

The restaurant’s landmarked chandeliers. Munro photograph.
Detail of one of the newly installed Morris Fruit-pattern embroidered wallcoverings, which replaced the cut-velvet coverings in the dining room. Order Design photograph.

Everyone loves a comeback story and Gage & Tollner’s is a good one. The three restaurateurs from Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood—chef Sohui Kim; her husband Ben Schneider, the design/build force behind several handsome restaurants; and St. John Frizell, cocktail ace of the bar and restaurant Fort Defiance—learned that the fading structure on Fulton was for rent, lined up private equity investors, opened a Wefunder account (to which I made a small contribution), and set about bringing back the beauty.

Except for the food and the mechanicals, virtually every decision had to be cleared with Landmarks, a process that turned out to be exacting, laborious, but ultimately enlightening, according to Schneider, who credits the help of a great many collaborators as the trio went about deciding what to keep, what to replace, and how such changes could and should be made. It was a huge undertaking, from the exterior, where one of the columns was rotten, the portico sagging, and the revolving wooden door unwilling to revolve, to matters of infrastructure—a kitchen, air conditioning, heating, and so forth.

Although ready by March of 2020, G&T was stillborn due to the pandemic. But in April 2021 its revolving door ushered in an eager public. The roguish glamour remains, but there are changes to admire: instead of a room crammed with identical four-legged tables as in the past, there are now fewer tables of different sizes, some round, some square, all with period-appropriate cast-iron bases and handsome wooden tops; upholstered booths now line the walls; and also for the first time there is seating at a long bar whose millwork was re-created from the design of the original smaller one. This gives customers a variety of dining experiences, welcoming walk-ins like me who want to sit at the bar, providing comfortable booths for those like my brother who want to linger over several courses, and tables for folks like antiques dealer Pat Bell, who prefers to hedge his bets.

Portrait of Charles Gage, who co-founded Gage & Tollner with Eugene Tollner, in a c. 1890s photo- graph. Center for Brooklyn History.
Tollner in a c. 1890 photo. Center for Brooklyn History.

The nine flamboyant brass lighting fixtures, probably the room’s most memorable feature, are here, their patina brightened rather than highly polished, their cut-glass shades long ago broken or discarded and replaced with suitable reproductions. Once upon a time they were powered by gas and then, it seems, by an improbable mixture of gas and electric, and are now, of course, fully electric. They no longer flicker but they do glow. As does the ceiling where a lightly polished Venetian plaster that Schneider likens to the inside of an oyster shell replaces a tattered dark bronze wallpaper, probably a relic of the 1990s.

The original woodwork, and there is a lot of it, endures, as do the many mirrors—some with the patina of age, some not—that make the room feel so much larger than it is. The Lincrusta wall covering, a deeply embossed nineteenth-century bit of Victoriana, is another hearty survivor, along with the old long-armed brass hat racks. Punctuating the walls below the Lincrusta are panels that had been upholstered in a darkish maroon cut velvet (probably in the 1970s) and are now redone in a lively but subtle William Morris fabric, certainly the standout innovation, although it is one, Schneider tells me, he initially opposed, eventually realizing that it was exactly this kind of change that helped bring the room to life. “It was a matter of building in collaboration with many others,” he says of this and other successful decisions, “and of a dialogue with the past.”

And what of the food and drink? Is it also talking to the past with a contemporary accent? Yes, so much so that some eager visitors line up outside, wait until G&T opens at five, and then breeze past the past, heading upstairs for the Sunken Harbor Room—a new space, albeit a traditionally handsome one, that offers inventive cocktails and bar snacks. The rest of us remain below ready for a good feed steeped in history.

Special event menu from November 1977 signed by guests. Notations at lower left indicate that the hosts were Edward Dewey and John Simmons, owner and manager of Gage & Tollner at the time and the ones who steered it through the exterior and interior landmarks process in the mid-1970s. Center for Brooklyn History.
Chocolate, cherry, and mint ice creams, and crumbled chocolate cookies, are concealed under toasted meringue in Gage & Tollner’s Baked Alaska. Munro photograph.
A raw-bar platter—oysters, lobster, and shrimp. Munro photograph.
Dry-aged ribeye with creamed spinach. Munro photograph.

Here again the results are the work of several talented hands, in addition to those of Sohui Kim, whose fried green tomatoes long ago convinced me that she might be equal to the challenge of Edna Lewis. The choices are many, varied, and seasonal, the steaks and chops carefully sourced. Bright versions of traditional favorites are here—she-crab soup, devils on horseback, cornmeal fritters, fried chicken, hot Parker House rolls nestled in their cast-iron pans—but so are clams Kimsino with their buttery kimchi, sunflower, and field bean risotto; crispy hen-of-the woods mushrooms with black garlic aioli and G&T sriracha; and excellent pain au levain.

After a meal like this, I desire nothing more than a slice of pie or perhaps a fruit cobbler, and here is where I part company with the present moment’s improvisations on the past. G&T wants to improve on my wishes with desserts that I find, if you will excuse the pun, somewhat too tarted up—a Baked Alaska, for instance, where the toasted meringue covers chocolate, cherry, and mint ice creams atop crumbled chocolate cookies. And yet these are new times, and I know that this and other Instagrammable confections are quite popular, while I am a member of a mildly disgruntled minority. I will learn to live with that.

It’s 2023 and the cranes are flying over Gage & Tollner. The plots of land on either side of the very famous restaurant in Brooklyn have been leveled and its handsome building will eventually be pinched between two forty-story towers, and yet there will still be superb oysters Rockefeller, butter roasted hash browns, Peconic snails, and the rest of the fare in the glowing room on Fulton Street, so this too I can live with…as can we all.

Exterior window with Gage & Tollner logo. Smyth photograph for Order Design.