After years of fundraising, research, blood, sweat and tears, the trio were set to re-open the landmark restaurant on March 15 2020—the week the world went into lockdown. Gage & Tollner finally, officially reopened on April 15 and it is, by just about any measurement, a triumph.
“It’s been a long process. But it was a big project; it should have taken a long time,” says Frizell, who is this week’s guest on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast.” “The last 13 months maybe were a little extra. But it takes a long time to do big things like that.”
And 13 months in the history of Gage & Tollner is just a few martinis in an ocean: The eatery opened its doors for the first time in 1879, a quintessential Gilded Age New York chop house right in the beating heart of Downtown Brooklyn. It had a pretty good run until a gradual decline set in about a century later, around when Fulton Street became a pedestrian mall in the 1970s.
Originally built as a private residence, the four-story late Italianate style brownstone building included of-the-era features like elaborate gas lamps, cherry wood detailing, a portico with Doric columns. The interior was sheathed in Victorian Lincrusta wall covering. Guests like Jimmy Durante and Mae West would come for the oysters, the steaks, the baked Alaskas … and the drinks.
Over the decades it would change hands a few times, it’s history rich and dynamic rich throughout. (There was at least one notable death in the dining room, Frizell points out.) But ultimately it would close down on Valentine’s Day 2004. A TGI Friday’s would move into its place.
But you wouldn’t be reading this if the story of Gage & Tollner ends ignominiously as a Friday’s.
“This is a really unusual thing that we did,” says Frizell. “Not only is change stopping, but something from the past is coming back. How often do you see that in New York? Great things in New York disappear with the snap of a finger. But this time it’s the opposite. It’s coming back into existence.”
In our conversation, Frizell recounts the first time he and his partners laid eyes on the Gage & Tollner space. Its spectacular interior had been landmarked decades ago, and somehow it has survived almost entirely in tact. He talks about the research that went into resurrecting the restaurant and the sensitivity with which he says the team is approaching the fabric of the neighborhood. To step through its revolving door is to be whisked into a New York before the world wars.
“When you walk into that room for the first time, especially if you go through the revolving door, it’s like, ‘Whoa’,” says Frizell. “Especially if the room is already filled up a little bit and there’s a din that noise of a restaurant it’s really like, ‘Where am I? When am I? What’s happening’?”
We also discuss the evolution of his own Fort Defiance in Red Hook as a combination grocery store-restaurant. Check it out here or wherever you get your podcasts.