Dining under Gas Lamps at Gage & Tollner’s

This post was authored by BHS Library and Archives processing intern Yingwen Huang. Ying processed the Edward and Gertrude Dewey collection of Gage & Tollner records, which are now open and available to the public in our library. For more information,  please see the collection’s finding aid.

Walking down Fulton Street shopping district in the Downtown Brooklyn neighborhood, you can’t help but notice the striking building featuring two white Doric columns under a portico. This landmarked building was once Brooklyn’s iconic Gage & Tollner restaurant. Closed in 2004, the restaurant was known for preserving 19th-century food and dining traditions well into the modern era.

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Edward Dewey (center) and staff posing in front of Gage & Tollner restaurant at the 80th Anniversary, 1969; Edward and Gertrude Dewey collection of Gage & Tollner records, 2016.034, Box 6; Brooklyn Historical Society.

The Edward and Gertrude Dewey collection of Gage & Tollner records contain papers, photographs, audio recordings, and memorabilia of the Gage & Tollner restaurant, dating from 1888 to 2004. The collection’s paper records, including ephemera, ledgers, journal books, and correspondence, document the restaurant’s business and operations. The photographs in this collection depict the restaurant’s landmark building, events at the restaurant, as well as its owners and employees over the years.

In 1879, Charles M. Gage opened an eating house at 303 Fulton Street. Eugene Tollner joined the restaurant in 1882 and the business was christened Gage & Tollner’s. In 1892, the restaurant moved into a new building, 372-374 Fulton Street, where it became famous for serving a variety of seafood and meat dishes. Over the years, the Gage & Tollner restaurant was loved by local Brooklynites and even attracted celebrities for its fine food and drinks topped with an elegant dining experience. The restaurant was later sold to A.H. Cunningham and Alexander Ingalls in 1911 and then to the Dewey family in 1919.

 

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Seafood and chops at Gage & Tollner’s, 1977; Edward and Gertrude Dewey collection of Gage & Tollner records, 2016.034, Box 6; Brooklyn Historical Society.

The Gage & Tollner restaurant was dedicated to serving fresh seafood and served a wide variety of dishes featuring clams, fishes, scallops, lobsters, and crabs. Oysters are perhaps the most beloved dish in the city’s history, and this is reflected in Gage & Tollner’s menu. For instance, there were more than fifty oyster preparations to select from in 1919. Other favorite dishes at the restaurant included seafood cocktail, lobster cream stew, and the signature broiled soft clam “bellies”, a dish invented and named by Seth Bradford Dewey.

Take a look at 1919 menu:

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Menu Cover, Page one and two featuring seafood specialties, 1919; Edward and Gertrude Dewey collection of Gage & Tollner records, 2016.034, Box 2; Brooklyn Historical Society

In November 1954, Gage & Tollner’s celebrated its 75th anniversary. Even though the restaurant building was converted to electric lighting in the 1890s, it continued its tradition of turning on the gas lights for five days during its anniversary so customers could enjoy a particularly romantic dining experience at the restaurant. On the day of the anniversary celebration, Edward and Thomas Dewey would dress up as Mr. Gage and Mr. Tollner.

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Left to Right: Edward Dewey as Mr. Gage, unidentified lady as Lillian Russell, and Thomas Dewey as Mr. Tollner at the 75th Anniversary Celebration, 1954; Edward and Gertrude Dewey collection of Gage & Tollner records, 2016.034, Box 6; Brooklyn Historical Society.

The Dewey family took pride in carrying on the restaurant’s traditions, and its menu remained largely unchanged over the decades. When restaurateur Peter Aschkenasy took over the space in 1989, he continued the restaurant’s rich traditions, but upgraded the menu by bringing in famed southern chef Edna Lewis, whose Charleston she-crab soup was the star of the new menu.

However, later owners found it difficult to maintain that tradition and remain profitable due to both changes in tastes and the economic climate in the Fulton Mall district. By the 1980s, the area had changed significantly since the restaurant’s early days. This was the result of numerous factors, such as the deindustrialization the borough, changing demographics, the closing of high-end department stores (especially Abraham & Straus), and the closing of traffic on Fulton Street. As a result, the area began attracting discount shoppers rather than upscale gourmands that made up the restaurant’s clientele. The last owner of Gage & Tollner’s, Joe Chirico, commented that some restaurants simply go “out of style” and the eatery was subsequently closed in 2004. The building was purchased by the Jemal family in 2004 for $2.8 million, who hoped to rent it to an upscale restaurateur. Despite those intentions, the building was housed by a TGI Fridays through 2007 and then an Arby’s in 2010. No restaurant has operated in the building since.

Sources:

“Famed Downtown Eating Place Marking Its 75th Anniversary.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, NY), Nov. 14, 1954. https://bklyn.newspapers.com/image/53988155/

“Neighborhood Report: Downtown Brooklyn; A Last Supper: Why Couldn’t Gage & Tollner Turn a Profit?” New York Times, June 4, 1995. http://www.nytimes.com/1995/06/04/nyregion/neighborhood-report-downtown-brooklyn-last-supper-why-couldn-t-gage-tollner-turn.html

“The Last Supper – Gage & Tollner Closing in B’klyn.” New York Post, February 12, 2004. http://nypost.com/2004/02/12/the-last-supper-gage-tollner-closing-in-bklyn/

“Brooklyn’s Forgotten Gage & Tollner Restaurant.” Atlas Obscura. http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/brooklyn-s-forgotten-gage-tollner-restaurant

About John Zarrillo

I am an archivist at Brooklyn Historical Society. My job is to make the historical records of Brooklyn openly available to students, scholars, and anyone else interested in the borough's past!
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