It doesn’t take much to imagine the sound of lobsters being cracked, oysters being shucked, local politicos hashing out deals and shoppers taking a break inside Gage & Tollner, the storied and iconic restaurant that operated in Downtown Brooklyn from 1892 to 2004.
Unobtrusively tucked into what is now Fulton Mall, 372-374 Fulton Street is a rarity — an intact restaurant interior from the grand and gilded period of the 1890s. The splendor of its chambers managed to survive the ups and downs of the area around it in large part because of its unusual status as one of only eight interior landmarks in Brooklyn and only 117 in New York City.
Designated by the New York Landmarks Commission in 1975 for its importance in capturing the “atmosphere of the Gay Nineties,” the space is also one of only a handful of restaurants or bars designated in the city, and the only one outside Manhattan. This places the interior in the select company of such iconic spaces as the Rainbow Room and the Four Seasons.
Since it closed in 2004, the space has had a number of tenants, including TGI Fridays, an Arby’s and a discount jewelry store. It is once again vacant, providing Brownstoner with an amazing opportunity to see the space without the modern retail trappings.
The restaurant was the result of a partnership formed in the 1880s between Charles. M. Gage and Eugene Tollner. After opening an oyster house at 302 Fulton in 1879, Gage joined with Tollner a few years later to found Gage & Tollner, a chop house and oyster bar.
In 1889, they leased 372-374 Fulton Street, altering the first floor of the 1875 building to create a grand dining space. The same year, they placed an ad in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle to sell some mirrors. Perhaps they were getting rid of some former decor? The restaurant opened in the new space in 1892.
The designer of the interior is unknown but whoever it was managed to create a subtly theatrical space that the owners saw little need to change over time. The pleasure of dining there became equal parts food, tradition and atmosphere, and the richly ornamented interior set the tone.
The relatively narrow dining space is lined on either side with a parade of arched, cherry-wood framed mirrors. “It was Tollner’s idea to line the walls with mirrors,” according to a Daily Eagle article in 1954. “He reasoned that customers might tire of paintings, but never of looking at themselves.”
The arches have ornamented keystones and some, placed in front of passageways, are decorated with brass screening rather than filled with mirrors.
The arches wrap around the rear of the restaurant space as well, supported by ornately carved Corinthian columns.
The mirrors wonderfully reflect the original lighting fixtures, designed to illuminate with both gas and electricity. At the time of designation, the gas jets were working, although today the fixtures are all electric.
The ornate brass fixtures line the center of the space and their wide span must have reflected a wonderful gas-light glow when lit.
Along one side is a paneled bar, which the designation report theorizes was moved from the original space at 302 Fulton Street.
A few of the carved details on the bar survive intact.
A long mirror runs behind the bar and the ceiling above it is ornamented with grape leaves.
Perhaps the stand-out feature of the space is the heavily embellished golden walls.
The Lincrusta-Walton wallpaper features a mix of patterns, from lion heads to swirls.
The founders sold their restaurant in 1911, although the name remained and Tollner continued to work there until the day of his death in 1936. The business continued under various owners and with a few bumps in the late 20th century until Gage & Tollner closed permanently in 2004.
The Jemal family has owned the space since 2004. It hopes to lease the space to another high-end eatery, Eater reported in April. Perhaps with the development in Downtown Brooklyn it is an opportunity for a new restaurant that can live up to the grandeur and history of the space.
[Photos by Susan De Vries]