Historic Gage & Tollner Returns to Downtown Brooklyn After 16 Years
Gage & Tollner served the people of Downtown Brooklyn for 125 years. The historic restaurant opened in 1879, changed hands four times, and was home to many titans of the industry. Legendary Southern chef Edna Lewis revolutionized the menu in 1988, and some service captains remained on staff for over 60 years. It’s dining room achieved landmark status. Then, on Valentine’s Day in 2004, it closed.
That same year, a T.G.I. Friday opened in its place. Next, Arby’s. Then, a jewelry store, followed by a clothing store, until it finally sat empty in 2016.
Around the same time, St. John Frizell, Ben Schneider, and Sohui Kim were in the neighborhood, looking. Frizell was interested in opening a spot there, a second venture to his bar Fort Defiance in Red Hook, and had asked his longtime friends Schneider and Kim, of The Good Fork and Insa, if they would consider doing the food. The trio has known each other since 2002, before any of them had entered the industry. Frizell was Schneider and Kim’s first tenant in the Red Hook building they owned.
“We were looking at some of the spaces with a realtor that weren’t any good and she was like, ‘well I’ve got one more thing to show you guys,” Frizell said. “It was Gage & Tollner.”
The three of them immediately knew that it was something they had to do.
“On the ride home, Ben and I sort of came up with the business plan that we still have, essentially. [We] just sort of were running the numbers back-of-the-napkin style and thought, ‘yeah this could really work’. Now, here we are,” Frizell, who will act as Beverage Director, said.
The new Gage & Tollner is predicted to open in early February, once a liquor license comes through. The menu will reflect the classics that made the space famous— things like Edna Lewis’ she-crab soup and broiled clam bellies, along with new additions that will allow Chef Kim to showcase her own 21st-century style cuisine. They don’t plan on having delivery or doing catering.
The interior of the dining room is protected by landmark status, and the team is committed to reviving the historic dining room to its original glory.
“I was always fascinated with [the restaurant] because of its history. It just seemed like such a symbol of the denigration of beautiful old things in our culture, because it got turned into a Fridays and then into an Arby’s and then a clothing retailer. But, it was obviously always meant to be this grand old restaurant,” Frizell said. “For us, all the value of Gage & Tollner is in that room. Being able to go there and disappear into it for a second and sort of feel your place in history. Knowing that for years Brooklynites like yourself have gone there to mark special occasions, to gather with friends, and you’re doing the same thing that they did. That’s the entire value. The food is going to be great, but it just needs to match the room. The room is really the star.”
One major addition to the spot comes in the form of the Sunken Harbor Club, a bar that will be housed upstairs. The Club was born at Fort Defiance, as a weekly Tiki-bar experience. Frizell, who writes fiction, non-fiction, and plays, had previously written a fictional history of the Club. It was a social group based in Downtown Brooklyn in the 19th century that disappeared in the mid-20th, only to later be turned into a Long John Silvers. If it sounds familiar, it is, as it was based on the history of Gage & Tollner.
“Now for the Sunken Harbor Club to actually be located in the second floor of Gage & Tollner, it’s very odd, very weird. But it feels very natural to me at the same time,” Frizell said. “Because why just open one restaurant when you could open two at the same time?”
The new outpost of the Club will have some drinks taken from the extensive creations at Fort Defiance, and some completely new, but will be a totally separate entity from the restaurant and its bar downstairs.
Revitalizing the restaurant is a project that many have considered. While at the Landmarks Preservation Commission, more than one of the commissioners told the trio publicly that they had thought about trying to save Gage & Tollner themselves and going into the restaurant business. Even so, many others turned it down.
The landlords shared with Frizell that they had gone to many restaurant families, including those that run Old Homestead and Peter Luger, as well as those running Diner and Mile End about opening in the space.
“I’m not sure why no one else saw the opportunity here. I mean it’s sort of such a unique space and it’s in not bad shape for what it is, as far as the plumbing and electrical and all that stuff goes. It needed a lot of work, but it didn’t need everything new,” Frizell said. “I imagine that once we open the doors the restaurateurs who said no to this opportunity will probably be asking themselves that same question.”
Perhaps, the pressure of reopening one of Brooklyn’s most long-loved restaurants weighed too heavily.
“We all feel it, all the time, every day. The pressure is enormous to us,” Frizell said. “We have everyone’s attention and everyone’s going to be looking at us and they’ll all notice if we fail at this. But also, because of the nature of the [spot], people have a personal emotional relationship with this restaurant. We’ve seen people come in there after the first time in years and break down in tears because it reminds them of their grandfather who used to take them there. In some ways, it’s kind of impossible to live up to expectations when it’s like that but we’re going to do our best.”
Because of the history surrounding the name Gage & Tollner, the new team was uncertain about using the old name for a while, about completely reopening that original restaurant. Eventually, the history and fascination won out.
“It’s an honor that I never thought I would have in my life. This is obviously the biggest project I’ve ever undertaken, and the most significant,” Frizell said. “It’s not just opening a restaurant to me, we’re really kind of walking into the ages of history here. I’m not saying that we even really deserve to be there it just kind of fell into our lap and we found this opportunity… We just kept going, and we ended up here. And now, the pressure is on to actually make the most of [it] and to do it right.”
Gage and Tollner will be located at 372 Fulton Street, between Red Hook Lane and Smith Street.
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