It was serendipitous. Ben Schneider, Sohui Kim, and St. John Frizell, the teams behind Red Hook restaurant The Good Fork and bar Fort Defiance respectively, were hoping to open a small cocktail bar in Downtown Brooklyn. A broker was showing them some spaces, none of which fit what they wanted. At the end of their tour, after a series of disappointments, the broker said, “Oh, let me show you one more thing.”
The team walked across Fulton Street and into the former home of Gage & Tollner. “When we walked in that day it had been cleared out and you could see the dining room for the first time in years,” said Frizell. “It was a magical experience.”
Quickly, plans changed. What was going to be an intimate, 30-seat cocktail bar became the revival of Gage & Tollner, which seats 110, has two private dining rooms, and space for a cocktail bar upstairs. It was the beginning of a massive undertaking. The plan is to open early next year.
In operation from 1892 to 2004, the restaurant was the result of a partnership between Charles M. Gage and Eugene Tollner. After running the restaurant for nearly 40 years, the pair sold in 1911, the first in a series of transfers of ownership. It was designated by the New York Landmarks Commission in 1975, one of only a handful of interiors of restaurants or bars designated in the city, and the only one outside Manhattan.
“With 125 years as a restaurant, that’s a lot of history,” said Kim. As the chef, she is thinking about how to structure the menu so it both reflects Gage & Tollner’s abundent past while updating it for modern times. “It’s dealing with people’s memory of the place and it’s all very sensitive.” She has been looking at old menus, she said, and wants to make sure everything is accessible and familiar. “I feel like the ghost of Edna Lewis is looking over me,” she adds, referring to the famed chef that that ran the kitchen at Gage & Tollner during a brief period in the 1980s. (One of the rooms upstairs will named after her.)
History has become an important part of the reopening of Gage & Tollner. Regulars and former employees have been stopping by the restaurant during construction, regaling the new operators with stories from the past. They even heard from an actress on Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” who used to play violin in the restaurant for customers. Hopefully, they say, all of this will be compiled into an oral history of the restaurant, of which the reopening is just the next chapter.
Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the Fall/Holiday 2019/20 issue of Brownstoner magazine.
[Photos by Susan De Vries unless noted otherwise]
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