Blueprints for the new Gage & Tollner: 125 years of menus, decor and staff

March 1, 2019 Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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
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Gage & Tollner is set to reopen this fall, resurrecting a 125-year legacy of oysters and chops. 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) have approached the challenge with the zeal of anthropologists uncovering a long-lost metropolis. Drawing from menus, news clippings and even former staffers, the trio are looking to the past to inspire a new future, detailed here by Mary Frost.

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

Inspired by 125 years of menus past

The new Gage & Tollner may be undergoing some renovations, but co-owner St. John Frizell said that he and his partners plan on keeping the oyster and chop-house feel of the original restaurant, with modern enhancements to the menu.

“The Dover sole was to die for. The she-crab soup was amazing,” said Brooklyn Heights resident Jane McGroarty, reminiscing on the old menu. “I liked the oyster broil, which was just some oysters and cream and paprika and pepper. And the shad and shad roe! … I don’t see that anymore.”

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“Edna Lewis’ she-crab soup is definitely something we’re going to bring back,” Frizell said, referring to the former G&T chef. Chef Lewis’ famous soup, made with female crabs, included crab roe for flavor.

“It’s intensely seasonal,” Frizell said. “Crabs only get pregnant at a certain moment in their lifespan, so we will definitely have that in season.”

A crowd of Gage & Tollner's old patrons and employees still remember the old menu. Eagle photo by Mary Frost
A crowd of Gage & Tollner’s former patrons and employees still remember the old menu. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

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

“I had one of my first soft-shell crabs here, but also I had been reading a book on whaling. At that point they had whale steak. That was when whaling was legal. You’re talking early 60s,” Cawse said.

“My God, we were just talking about this!” Frizell said, adding that he and fellow co-owner Ben Schneider had amassed a treasure trove of historic Gage & Tollner menus going back to the early 1900s. “It was the only seafood dish that came with onion rings … It was $2.50. You’re the only one I know who ate it.”

He added, “I was saying I wonder what it would taste like. We decided it would taste more like beef than fish, since it’s a mammal.”

“It tasted like a tough steak coated with cod liver oil,” Cawse said.

“That will not be coming back,” Frizell replied, and the crowd of visitors laughed.

“The Gage & Tollner philosophy about food was that you use high-quality ingredients; you prepare them very simply — and we think that people still have an appetite for that kind of cooking,” he added.

Decor of old and new

Frizell said the team plans to reopen the former private upstairs dining rooms. In the years since 2004, they had been used as a tattoo parlor. Pink wallboard still partially covers a gorgeous marble fireplace. A dumbwaiter, which runs from the basement to the upstairs rooms, will be opened up and used again. Another upstairs area will be transformed into the Sunken Harbor Room, a Victorian tropical cocktail bar.

The new owners are using an archive at the Brooklyn Historical Society for reference material during their restoration, Frizell said. “Like 11 boxes, donated by one of the families that owned this place from 1919 to 1985.”

Downstairs, where the old chandeliers still hang, reflected in the mirrors along the wood-paneled walls, it’s all about restoration.

“The room already has the feel; it speaks for itself,” Schneider said. “We want to create a kind of classic food and warm hospitality that was here in the old days. We don’t want to do a museum piece; we don’t want to be super old-timey about it. But we do want to bring back the spirit and the fun and the great cuisine.”

The chandeliers TKTK Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
The restaurant’s original chandeliers still hang from the ceiling. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

A staff reunion

The team is reaching out to people who used to work at Gage & Tollner, according to Frizell.

“We’re going to invite some of the people who used to work here to one of the opening parties,” he said.

Many of the waiters worked at Gage & Tollner for so many years their uniforms had service stripes, stars and eagles, depending on their years or decades of service. One waiter was so old he lay down on a cot between orders, Frizell said. (He also sipped wine throughout the night, which might have had something to do with it.)

Park Slope resident and theater teacher Camille Mazurek (named Camille Wiedorn at the time) was one of the first three women hired at the previously male-only wait staff establishment, and one of the first white workers among a predominantly African-American staff.

“Another gentleman, Mark Bermudez, was also white. We were the only white wait staff that worked here for a long time,” she said. “Sometimes there were people who didn’t want me to wait on them because they wanted a black man to wait on them, because that’s what Gage & Tollner was.”

Mazurek also recalled Maître d’ Wade Sinclair’s beautiful voice. “He used to sing on Saturday nights, and we had a piano player. At the end of the night, he would sing Body and Soul.”

“There was a time that I left thinking I wanted to be in some other restaurants. But none could compare to Gage & Tollner. It was a really great atmosphere, and we were union … We were treated really well here,” Mazurek said.

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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