Gage & Tollner: A prestigious past charts an inspired future

A five-part package exploring the restaurant's past, present and future

March 1, 2019 Sarah Zorn Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
From left: Ben Schneider and Sohui Kim of The Good Fork and St. John Frizell of Fort Defiance plan to reopen Gage & Tollner this fall. Eagle photos by Paul Frangipane.
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Brooklyn eagerly awaits the resurrection of one of its grandest culinary landmarks: Gage & Tollner, which shuttered in 2004 after 125 years of operation. Three of the borough’s most highly regarded restaurateurs, Sohui Kim and Ben Schneider (of The Good Fork) and St. John Frizell (of Fort Defiance), plan to reopen the restaurant this fall at its landmarked 372 Fulton St. storefront. We sent veteran Brooklyn food writer Sarah Zorn to learn how Kim, Schneider and Frizell view their endeavor in the context of the borough’s evolving culinary history.

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

“We’re banking on the fact that tastes are coming back around”

Brooklyn’s most enduring restaurants are very much indicative of a time and place, serving as snapshots of the current social, political, economic and cultural pulse of the city and inevitably becoming shaped by it in kind. Gage & Tollner is the preeminent example of that, existing, during its unprecedented run, as an oyster house in the 1900s (back when the harbors were absolutely teeming with bivalves), a premier gathering hub for the glittering elite (Mae West, Truman Capote and Diamond Jim Brady were regulars) and even the borough’s first locally-sourced, farm-to-table spot during the reign of Edna Lewis (the highly influential chef would make regular trips to the greenmarket, while owner Peter Aschkenasy scoured Fulton for fish).

As the restaurateurs behind the resurgence of Gage & Tollner prepare for the future, they look to the institution's past. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
As the restaurateurs behind the resurgence of Gage & Tollner prepare for the future, they look to the institution’s past. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

That said, tastes and trends are cyclical in the city that never sleeps. Despite best efforts to ride the wave, certain concepts simply aren’t suited for the times. Such was the case with Gage & Tollner upon its folding in 2004. Though still held in high regard, it inevitably emerged as an old-fashioned, overly formal outlier during Brooklyn’s “New American” restaurant renaissance and its exciting infusion of eclectic, independent and intimate mom-and-pops.

Sohui Kim and Ben Schneider of The Good Fork and St. John Frizell of Fort Defiance have been definite beneficiaries of this industry-shifting boom.

Kim and Schneider emerged as darlings of the borough’s indie dining scene after opening their Korean-tinged boîte in Red Hook in 2006, beloved for its steak and eggs with kimchi fried rice. They expanded their reach with the BBQ and karaoke hub Insa in Gowanus, and authored two cookbooks besides.

Award-winning writer and bartender Frizell furthered a growing obsession with mixology and bespoke cocktails in 2009, when he established Red Hook as a destination for discerning imbibers (especially those with an appreciation for elevated classics, as well as a soft spot for tiki).

So it’s ironic — or perhaps just aptly timed — that they are the very ones masterminding G&T’s latest comeback. Having proven adept at reading the tea leaves when it comes to staying relevant with their existing restaurants, they sensed the pendulum swinging back the other way. And thus they determined 2019 provided precisely the right climate for rebooting Brooklyn’s grandest dining destination.

“While the laid back, small plate revolution still has currency and validity, we’re banking on the fact that tastes are coming back around, that people are craving that classic experience again,” Schneider said. “Not to say we won’t be bringing what we’ve all learned over the past decade or so to the table — such as a thoughtfulness about seasonality and food sourcing — but we’re also acknowledging that the ceremony of eating out still has a broad appeal.”

Discount jewelers and clothing stores are among Gage & Tollner’s most plentiful neighbors.

Of course, creating a crowd-pleasing place to see and be seen is a tall order on highly commercial Fulton Street, where — despite the looming presence of under-construction condos — discount jewelers and clothing stores still count as its most thickly settled residents. Still, the team is quick to reference the myriad, emotional responses they’ve gotten from New Yorkers of all stripes upon learning that Gage & Tollner will rise again.

When it comes to nurturing that nostalgia, they don’t need to recreate the wheel in order to recapture the magic. Not only does the landmarked space serve as a Rosetta Stone of sorts, but the newest owners have access to literally a century’s worth of menus (a 1919 version includes 24 preparations for Saddle Rock oysters), both providing insight into evolving tastes as well as the emergence of dishes that would eventually become classics.

“The thing is, while we tend to think of Gage & Tollner as a time capsule, so much of what they were doing was anachronistic… they just did it at a glacial pace,” said Frizell. “Looking through the menus, all of a sudden a bloody mary pops up in the 60s. Glancing at pictures, you see these neat lines of rectangular tables, which was a signature look all the way back, replaced by round tables in the 70s. Why? And why then? They probably had heated discussions about it right here where we’re standing.”

“From installing an HVAC system to bringing on Edna Lewis [quite the statement for a restaurant where African-Americans once weren’t allowed], you see all of these small yet formative adjustments being made,” he continued. “But they liked to give the illusion that things never changed and were always the same.”

Kim, Schneider and Frizell are equally committed to preserving the integrity of the original, just maintained and restored through almost imperceptible tweaks. They take the notion seriously that they’re building on a legacy — and they hope it’s one that lasts another 100 years.

“When it comes to Gage & Tollner, it’s not like there was a revolving door of owners. In the span of a century, it changed hands four times,” said Kim. “Now, we’ve been bosses long enough to know that it’s the toughest part about this business. And that it obviously takes a good boss to keep a restaurant open for 100 years.”

“The food part is easy, making a team is what it’s about. A community that’s comprised not just of your patrons, but your employees as well,” she added. “And if we can prove we can do it on this bigger scale, using everything we’ve learned about growing a family at our previous restaurants, that would be the greatest achievement.”

“So that’s what I want us to do,” Kim concluded. “And when they write about us, I hope it’s to say that three scrappy restaurateurs in Brooklyn did this, and not some big corporate group. It’s what I hope becomes our chapter in Gage & Tollner’s history.”

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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