From our archives: The history of Gage & Tollner

March 1, 2019 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
Gage tollner interior in the old days. Eagle file photo
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When it shuttered in 2004 after 125 years in operation, Gage & Tollner had long been a Brooklyn institution: the city’s oldest oysterhouse. Oyster, chops, lobsters and steaks were served daily from its now-landmarked storefront at 372 Fulton St. This fall, three of 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 — and they’re drawing from its storied history to inspire its latest incarnation. The Brooklyn Eagle’s archives go further back than any other Brooklyn publication, so we turned to its pages to find some of the most important moments of the many mentions found within its pages.

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

1910: Gage & Tollner retire, business sold… then sold again

Eugene Tollner tells the Brooklyn Eagle of his retirement.
Eugene Tollner tells the Brooklyn Eagle of his retirement.

Gage & Tollner was already “one of the oldest old-fashioned oyster houses in the country, and certainly the oldest in the City of New York” when its name began popping up in earnest in the Eagle archives. Most notably, on December 13, 1910, the paper announced the retirement of its two founders — Charles M. Gage and Eugene Tollner — “for more than a generation known to good livers in Brooklyn.”

Upon their retirement, the business was purchased by “Messrs Cunningham & Ingalls, a well-known Baltimore concern.” It was sold again on May 6, 1919, to Hiram S. Dewey, and remained in the family until 1985.

1925: Oysters first, then chops. The secret to Gage & Tollner’s success.

Eugene Tollner didn’t stay retired long. He came back and began managing the restaurant shortly after retirement — and became the de facto spokesperson and marketer. On January 18, 1925, the Eagle celebrated his 43 years of “devotion to the oyster business” with an interview in which Tollner credited the restaurant’s success to their belief that “Oysters come first, and then chops.” In the clipping above, from the same article, he also suggest good real estate instincts played a role, as they so often do in Brooklyn business.

Just how many oysters was Gage & Tollner selling? One oysterman for the restaurant told the Eagle on April 21, 1929, that he estimated he shucked 38.4 million oysters in his 48 years of service, saying the restaurant goes through roughly 50,000 a month. He also said he threw away thousands of pearls.


1929: Celebrating 50 years in business, the restaurant says not much changes in food

The Eagle dispatched a young reporter to the restaurant on Gage & Tollner’s 50th anniversary on November 10, 1929. He found Tollner “disappointing,” in that he reported no change over the half century. Tollner did note, however, that the current trend among eaters was to “hurry, hurry.” But, he noted, “We can’t serve things in a hurry.”

1932: Great Depression brings on lobster sales

What made the Great Depression so great? Apparently an upswing in lobsters sold at Gage & Tollner’s. “I think it’s because so many people have had to give up their help and serving lobster without help is a job,” Tollner told the Eagle, reported on November 20, 1932.

1933: Repeal of Prohibition sees interest in oysters surge

The depression wasn’t the only societal trend affecting Gage & Tollner sales. Oysters are best accompanied by a beer and vice versa, so when the taps went dry during Prohibition, sales dipped. And when the law was repealed in 1933, sales rebounded, according to a December 13, 1933, report in the Eagle.

1935: Eugene Tollner dies on eve of 86th birthday

The December 12, 1935, obituary reports that Tollner worked up to and on the last day of his life. An obituary the following day called him a “dead of restaurateurs” who “bridged the gap between the old Brooklyn … and the modern Brooklyn of today.” He was interred in Greenwood Cemetery.

1944: Wartime rationing squashes 64th anniversary celebration

The war brought rationing and stole away 12 men from their jobs at Gage & Tollner’s. Additionally, “all four sons of the late proprietor are in the service,” the Eagle’s November 22, 1944 report noted.

1952: Finally, a feature on Ike

William R. Gaskill, or Ike as patrons knew him, served the restaurant for 30 years and retired in 1949. He was a character well-known enough that his returning for a visit after retirement merited a writeup in the February 21, 1952 edition of the Eagle.

The photo above comes from an earlier story about Ike.

1952: Gage & Tollner’s introduces the whale steak

Old patrons still remember the whale steak on the menu, though it was removed when such thing became illegal. But before there was whale steak, owner Seth B. Dewey wrote to kitchen staff from the Bahamas, telling them about the different preparations they should consider for turtle steak — the letters were reported on by the Eagle on February 28, 1936.

1954: The restaurant celebrates its 75th birthday

Though long ago wired for electricity, the occasion merited the use of its gas lamps — a novelty that received much of the attention in the November 14, 1954, full-page coverage of the restaurant’s 75th anniversary.

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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