Downtown

Gage & Tollner’s revival unlocks neighborly memories

“This is wonderful — it’s like going back in time”

March 1, 2019 Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
A passerby looks into the window of the resurgent Gage & Tollner's. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

A steady stream of visitors rapped on the window of 372 Fulton St. on a recent Saturday and were ushered into a space that was once the most famous restaurant in Brooklyn.

The garish pink wallboard, a remnant of the property’s most recent tenant, had been torn down to reveal an almost miraculous time capsule. The landmarked floor-to-ceiling mirrors, cherry wood walls, embossed lincrusta plasterwork and ornate gas lamps that defined Gage & Tollner were all there, looking much as they did in 1879, when the chop-and-oyster house first opened.

“What’s going on here?” one man asked.

“We’re reopening Gage & Tollner as a restaurant,” said Brooklyn restaurateur St. John Frizell.

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A small knot of people let out cries of surprise and joy.

“You’re going to do that? Oh, good for you!” the man yelped, as the crowd broke into applause.

“This is wonderful — it’s like going back in time,” a woman said.


This story is included in a five-part exploration of Gage & Tollner’s past, present and future. Other stories include:



This scene was repeated dozens of times throughout the next few hours during an open house held by Frizell, owner of Red Hook’s Fort Defiance and his partners, Ben Schneider and chef Sohui Kim, owners of the Good Fork, in Red Hook, and Insa, in Gowanus.

The pink-plastered walls are tktktk Eagle photo by Mary Frost
The new owners plan to tear down the graffiti’d pink walls to make room for a brand-new kitchen. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

The three are working to reopen the restaurant of their dreams. And if Saturday’s visitors were any indication, that dream is shared by countless fellow Brooklynites — some of whom have invested in the effort via the crowd-share site Wefunder.

“We’re going to open in the fall,” Frizell said. “We just signed a lease in December; you see liquor license notices in the window, and the permit applications are in.”

“Just thinking about it and discussing it is giving me goosebumps,” Carroll Gardens resident Reginald Ferguson said. “It’s a classic seafood chop spot. I only came here once, but I remember the gas-lit lanterns, and I wanted to experience one of the vestiges of old New York.”

Delores Connors remembers coming to the old Gage & Tollner with her husband of 25 years. Eagle photo by Mary Frost
Delores Connors remembers coming to the old Gage & Tollner with her husband of 25 years. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

“My husband and I were married at the Brooklyn Ethical Culture Society, and we held our reception here,” neighbor Delores Connors said. “We spent many dates here, and decided that for our special day we would celebrate here. So this is a very special place to us, and we love it and we’re very happy that it’s coming back.” She added, “We’ve been married 25 years.”

Stacy Cowley, a resident of Downtown Brooklyn and a business reporter with The New York Times, said she was “very excited” to see the eatery’s revival.

“My husband and I walked past and peered inside for years, and it’s so thrilling to see it coming back to life the way it should be. We moved to the area in 2010, after Gage & Tollner had closed, and everyone would just tell us the stories. So it’s exciting to see this recreating what everyone has told us was here.”

She added, “St. John is an absolute wizard with cocktails, and he and his partners have amazing food. Their restaurant Insa is just gorgeous; we go there all the time. So I know it’s in good hands … Their places in Red Hook are fabulous.”

“Whenever we’re here and we have the lights on, people just walk in off the street and start telling us about their memories of the place,” Frizell said. “It’s just beautiful. People of all ages, all walks of life. If you stand on Fulton and Jay Street, you’ll see every type of Brooklynite walk by. And that’s who we want to get to walk in the door.”

A gathering place for Brooklyn’s elite

“I’m so looking forward to this. Ever since it closed, it’s been like a big hole on Fulton Street,” said Brooklyn Heights resident Jane McGroarty. She recalled that the restaurant, which closed for good in 2004, had been immensely popular with the court house crowd.

“The first time we were here, I think it was lunch,” she reminisced. “There was a guy on trial over here … at State Supreme, Sam Wright. He walks in and he goes from table to table shaking hands, saying, ‘Hi, judge! Hi, judge! Hi, judge!’

Despite his familiarity with Brooklyn’s judicial system, Councilmember Wright was eventually convicted of stealing from poverty programs.

James Cawse used to dine at the legendary eatery with his father, Judge Alfred J. Cawse.

“My dad tells it he came in one time and the waiter serving him said, ‘Judge, you’re in that court with all them bookies and numbers runners and all those bad people. I’ll bet you know the numbers.’ And then my dad had a sense of the thing and he said, ‘Yeah, 372.’

“The guy played it — and won,” Cawse said. “The next time [dad] came in, he couldn’t pay for his meal.”

The partners behind the new Gage & Tollners are hoping to hear any and all memories of the restaurant in its former glory. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
The partners behind the new Gage & Tollners are hoping to hear any and all memories of the restaurant in its former glory. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

“I remember Gage & Tollner with great nostalgia,” said Dozier Hasty, publisher of the Brooklyn Eagle. “In the early 1970s it was still run by the family of Edward Dewey, a third generation owner/operator. Ed and his wife Trudy were active members of the Heights community …

“The cast of leading Brooklyn characters one encountered dining there were endless: the great and irreplaceable Bill Levin, perhaps Brooklyn’s most elegant, beloved private citizen of all time; Charles Hamm, Levin’s successor as chairman of the South Brooklyn Savings Bank [later Independence]; the serenely dignified Josephine Billings, chair of Brooklyn Hospital; the flamboyant, colorful Meade Esposito, Democratic county leader of Kings County and one of the most publicized political ‘bosses’ of another era,” Hasty said. “A young newspaperman dining there saw up close Brooklyn’s elite civic, political and cultural leadership.”

“I was in my 20s and still played guitar,” Hasty said. “Wade Sinclair, the head waiter at Gage & Tollner, often jammed with me; he had a great bass voice.”

Maître d’ Sinclair, now 92, is currently living in Fort Greene, Frizell told the Eagle.

“We brought a cameraman to his house and did a little interview. Then we brought him here and he told me he used to be a singer. And I said, ‘Why don’t you sing something.’ And he just belted out “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing.” If you go to our Instagram account, I put a little video of him singing. It’s tremendous. He has the most beautiful voice,” Frizell said.

He added, “I asked him if he would sing when we reopen, and he said yes.”


This story is included in a five-part exploration of Gage & Tollner’s past, present and future. Other stories include:

Correction (March 13): Earlier versions of articles in this series inconsistently referred to the number of years in which Gage & Tollner’s was in operation. We regret the confusion. 


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