Actress Meryl Streep. Banker David Rockefeller. Painter Robert Rauschenberg.
Waiter Mark Bermudez can rattle off dozens of celebrities he served during 26 years working at legendary Brooklyn restaurant Gage & Tollner.
“Jack Nicholson came in with Mike Nichols because they were filming ‘Heartburn’ in Prospect Park,” recalled Bermudez, a 65-year-old Bushwick resident who has done stints at Babbo and Balthazar.
“[Nicholson] asked, ‘What can you get here?’ and I said, ‘You can get anything we have.’ I was a smartass back then.”
His was the kind of good-natured hubris that came from decades at a culinary and cultural institution where owners, employees and regulars acted like a tight-knit family.
Dating to 1879, Gage & Tollner started out as a chophouse at 372 Fulton St. in Downtown Brooklyn known for its seafood and meat, luring customers from politicians and starlets to the literati and mobsters. Powerbrokers sat beneath glittering chandeliers in a long room lined with elegant cherry-wood paneling and arched mirrors. A century later, the historic decor — brass Victorian hat hooks included — was designated the city’s third-ever interior landmark, after the New York Public Library and Grant’s Tomb. By some measures, it was the eighth-oldest restaurant in the city, opened eight years before Peter Luger.
But after Gage & Tollner shuttered in 2004, its halls were besmirched by inglorious tenants: Arby’s, TGI Friday’s and a costume jewelry shop called Ladies and Gents among them.
Now a trio of trendy restaurateurs — Sohui Kim, Ben Schneider and St. John Frizell — in addition to hundreds of investors who pledged money via a crowdfunding campaign have restored the restaurant to its former glory. Gage & Tollner reopens on Sunday with an old-school cocktail list and a 21st-century menu of throwback dishes.
The road to resurrection has been long, as legacies of the restaurant’s earlier iterations loom large. When Charles Gage and Eugene Tollner debuted an oyster eatery near the courthouses and government offices where many regulars worked, it was four years before the Brooklyn Bridge was complete and almost a decade before Kings County joined the other boroughs to form what we now call New York City.
During the early 20th century, owners remained so devoted to the business that one — Alexander Ingalls, who purchased Gage & Tollner in 1911 — died in the dining room. Tollner himself, who stayed on staff even after the sale, dropped dead on his way to the restaurant in 1935, the night before his 86th birthday.
The next family to run Gage & Tollner was committed to carrying the torch. Wine-business heir Seth Bradford Dewey was inspired to purchase Gage & Tollner after he took a date there during the 1910s and left his wallet at home, according to a report in Beverage Retailer Weekly.
He asked a manager if he could return to settle his bill the following day and leave his gold watch as collateral. Gage, who was still acting as host at the time, scoffed at the request and told Dewey to keep it: “You will need it to know when to go home. Besides, it may surprise you to know that I kissed your sweetheart before you ever did. Her dad used to bring her in here when she was just a little tot.”
“From then on,” the Beverage Retailer Weekly reported, “the restaurant had two more steady customers” — and, eventually, a new owner.
Dewey operated the restaurant until his death. Management later passed to his son Ed and Ed’s wife, Trudy. Ed and Trudy’s grandson, Torin Dewey, has vivid memories of working as a runner on a packed New Year’s Eve, scarfing down filet mignon and chocolate mousse in the kitchen and kiddie high jinks in his grandparents’ high-ceilinged quarters above the restaurant.
“My grandfather would get up at 5 in the morning. We would gather all the day-old bread and the better portions of it he would distribute to the needy. We would go to the Fulton Fish Market,” said Torin, now 55 and a Boulder, Colorado-based chemist.
“I would try the oysters Rockefeller and the traditional wedge salad. That had my grandmother’s blue cheese dressing. It was the same dressing we had upstairs in the apartment, so that was really cool.”
Torin inherited a treasure-trove of Gage & Tollner swag — from matchbooks (which advertised the space had that rare amenity: air-conditioning) to T-shirts from the running club Ed led (which new pastry chef Caroline Schiff, a marathoner, plans to revive) — and many will eventually be on display in the reopened restaurant.
“We heard stories all the time,” said Torin. “‘Muhammad Ali came by the restaurant last week,’ or whatever. The old mayor, Ed Koch, was a regular.”
Other boldfaced patrons included Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Sigourney Weaver, Mae West, Rex Harrison, Truman Capote and Martin Scorsese. Brooklyn Dodgers players reunited there, as did multiple generations of police commissioners. It teemed with Brooklyn politicians, judges and lawyers from Al Sharpton to David Dinkins — especially during lunch hour.
“Think of the Gilded Age. It was like walking back in time, into the 19th century. You had 18-foot-high mirrors on both sides which amplified a small space into a greater space. It was opulent,” Bermudez said. “This is what Gage & Tollner was, but it was egalitarian, everyone could go.”
Indeed, locals from Brooklyn Heights and other neighborhoods sat cheek by jowl with the borough’s bigwigs. Delores Connors, 48, and husband Matthew, 58, who met as 20-something teachers at Thomas Jefferson HS in East New York, dined at Gage & Tollner on special occasions, including after they got engaged on the Brooklyn Heights promenade.
The Connors hosted their wedding reception there in December 1996 and continued to make pilgrimages for Chef Edna Lewis’ she-crab soup, clams and shrimp when they moved to Bergenfield, New Jersey. They were gutted when it closed in 2004.
“It just felt like, ‘What’s happening to New York that we’re losing such a rich place?’” Delores said. “To me, it’s like a sacred kind of dining that’s not rushed. It’s not trendy or flashy, it’s just for people who want to enjoy a meal with quality food and quality service that’s steeped in history.”
‘To have it disappear and become a fast food restaurant — it hurt on a deep emotional level.’
Longtime Brooklyn Heights residents, retired architect Jane McGroarty, 76, and her ophthalmologist husband, James, 77, went to Gage & Tollner once a month to chow down on oyster broil, Dover sole and creamed spinach.
Every night at 6:30 p.m., Torin recalls, Ed Dewey would enlist a child to help him light the gas chandeliers. Jane says her daughter loved participating in the ceremony by “blowing out” the long lamplighter he used to ignite small flames in each of the chandeliers’ branches. Although the original lamps are still in place, an unknown party has run wiring through the gas valves, so only electricity can be used to illuminate them now.
When the Deweys retired in 1988, restaurateur Peter Aschkenasy took over.
He sold it to Carroll Gardens native Joe Chirico in 1995. Some scandals ensued: When actor Steven Seagal and others went on trial for racketeering, Bermudez took the stand to testify about a group dinner they had at Gage & Tollner. Chirico himself was eventually linked to the Gambino crime family.
Chirico held on until 2004, even as Downtown Brooklyn fell to big-box stores and chains.
Then the neighborhood was rezoned and high-rise residential towers brought an influx of deep-pocketed residents. In April of 2017, Frizell and Schneider were touring area commercial spaces for an intimate bar. The real estate agent showed them the abandoned Gage & Toller space.
“You could see the mirrors and the arches, the trim and the Lincrusta and the chandeliers, and it was just mind-blowing,” Frizell said. “On the spot, we changed our concept from a small 40-seat cocktail bar to a giant oyster and chophouse.”
It took Frizell, Schneider and partner Kim years to raise the $2 million necessary and then restore and renovate the time capsule on Fulton Street, boosted by the support of 335 Gage & Tollner regulars who donated a total of about $475,000 via crowd-funding site Wefunder.
(The Connors, who supported the campaign with about $2,000, are excited to host a graduation party for their 21-year-old son this spring.)
“It was Brooklyn’s response to the Four Seasons or the Rainbow Room,” Frizell said. “To have it disappear and become a fast food restaurant — it hurt on a deep emotional level, and to have it come back is the culinary equivalent of the Dodgers returning to Brooklyn for a lot of people. We didn’t know it was going to be that important to people, but it’s a nice surprise.”
Source: Thanks https://nypost.com/2020/03/12/famed-brooklyn-restaurant-gage-tollner-reopening-after-16-years/