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Found in the Attic at Gage & Tollner: Historic Treasure


For an individual, it’s almost a cliché of personal discovery: while poking around in Grandma’s attic, you stumble upon a trunk stuffed with long-lost family artifacts. But for a venerable old restaurant — particularly a defunct one carved up over the past 15 years by a costume jewelry store, a tattoo parlor and an Arby’s — such a find is markedly more surprising.

Nonetheless, that’s essentially what happened to the new owners of Gage & Tollner, the Brooklyn landmark that dished out steak and seafood in an evocative, gaslight-era atmosphere on Fulton Street from the late 19th century until 2004, and that will reopen March 15.

In December, Ben Schneider, a co-owner, pulled a milk crate full of antique brass hat hooks from a dusty crawl space beneath the roof and spotted behind it several decaying cardboard boxes that appeared to have been languishing there for decades.

After lugging them out on his hands and knees through the grime, he took the boxes downstairs to his team — including his wife, Sohui Kim, a co-owner who is also the restaurant’s chef — and excitedly held up a maroon-and-gold 85th anniversary flag that presumably dated to 1964. As the restaurateurs dove into the boxes, they quickly came to realize that Mr. Schneider had turned up an eclectic, eye-opening trove of archival materials from Gage & Tollner, which opened under another name at 302 Fulton Street in 1879 before decamping to its current location, at 372-374 Fulton, in 1892.

“It was pretty exciting,” said St. John Frizell, another co-owner. “It was like finding a message in a bottle from previous ownership to us.”

The newly unearthed historic materials cover a considerable span of time and subject matter: cryptic handwritten notes about turn-of-the-20th-century cash transactions; menus; price quotes from a butcher; notes on celebrity customers and the prodigious speed of an oyster shucker; correspondence about a restaurant display at the 1939-40 World’s Fair; fliers from a 1948 strike; a 1965 WQXR radio advertisement recording; and a bill from a dinner for retired Brooklyn Dodgers players. These artifacts supplement the information previously provided by seven linear feet of Gage & Tollner records donated to the Brooklyn Historical Society by a longtime owner’s daughter in 2016.

Among the first items pulled from the newly discovered boxes were award certificates from Holiday magazine, a national travel publication that honored Gage & Tollner for 24 straight years beginning in 1952. In an era before the James Beard Awards or Zagat’s or Yelp, the Holiday awards were so coveted that the longtime owner Ed Dewey collected all kinds of ephemera from the galas, including invitations, menus, matchbooks, train tickets and pictures of him and his wife, Trudy, with other winners.

“Nationally it was a tight-knit little group,” said John Simmons, who co-owned the restaurant with Mr. Dewey from 1973 to the mid 1980s. “We were friends with restaurateurs from New Orleans, Monterey and San Francisco.”

Also in the trove of discovered ephemera were pages of notes in pencil that Janet Dewey Pawlukiewicz, Mr. Dewey’s daughter, confirmed were written in her father’s hand. Many of the notations track information attributed to the headwaiter Leon Gaskill in a 1957 Holiday magazine article, suggesting that Mr. Dewey took his own notes while the reporter interviewed Mr. Gaskill.

According to the Holiday story, the headwaiter was a 51-year veteran of Gage & Tollner at the time, meaning his restaurant memories reached back to the first decade of the 1900s. The handwritten notes are valuable because they contain information excluded from the article.

Among these unpublished recollections are the all-cash transactions favored by the establishment’s first owners, Charles M. Gage, who founded the restaurant in 1879, and Eugene Tollner, who joined him in the 1880s.

“Gage and Tollner kept no books or records,” the notes say, “split up proceeds each nite,” and “all goods came in C.O.D.”

The wait staff, too, apparently dealt in cash: “Waiters paid off cooks to keep jobs. Cooks were hired on basis that they would be p’d by waiters.”

Mr. Gaskill’s memories also extended to old-time fashions (“customers wore black or brown derbies in winter & skimmers in summer”) and traced the evolution of transportation (“came by horse & carriage or hansom cab, Fords, Packards, the ‘El’” — a reference to the Fulton Street elevated train).

The notes also shed light on race relations. While the waiters and bartenders were primarily African-American throughout the 125-year life of the restaurant, all the owners were white. Among the many white celebrities Mr. Gaskill recalled dining there were the actress Lillian Russell, the businessman-gourmand Diamond Jim Brady and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.

But according to the notes, “Williams and George Walker only colored here then,” likely a reference to the African-American vaudeville duo of Bert Williams and Mr. Walker, who died in 1911.

Waiters at Gage & Tollner were known to remain for years or decades, earning gold ornaments for their uniforms with each milestone: a bar for one year, a star for five and an eagle for 25.

But in late 1948, labor discord broke out in the form of a strike. Leaflets found in the restaurant’s “attic” articulate the two sides’ positions.

In a handout bearing the racially charged headline “Emancipation Proclamation,” the striking workers asked patrons, “Can we play Santa Claus to OUR Families on 30¢ PER HOUR SALARY. Gage & Tollner charges 75¢ for STUFFED CELERY.”

The restaurant’s owners, the Dewey family, asserted in a flier that workers were striking “because we refused to grant them a closed shop or a hiring hall, the granting of which” would make it impossible “to provide our patrons with the type of courteous service in the traditional manner to which they have become accustomed.”

The strike ended after two months, with ownership hiring back the picketers but holding firm on its refusal to hire new workers through a union hall or to require new employees to join a union.

A mysterious page of notes, written in the owner Mr. Dewey’s hand but expressing anti-management sentiments, hints at the resentments that flared: “Being Served by Scab Labor Un-Amer,” “$19 a week to live on.”

Wade Siler, a maître d’ who worked at Gage & Tollner for most of the years between 1968 and 2004, said that the staff “made good tips” and were well treated. The customers, he added, were predominantly white.

“I don’t think blacks felt they wouldn’t be served,” said Mr. Siler, who is African-American. “They just didn’t have the money.”

One black customer who had plenty of money but apparently didn’t need to use it was Muhammad Ali. “The funniest thing was that when I gave him the bill, he said, ‘No, no, don’t give it to me, give it to that guy,’” Mr. Siler recalled. “The guy he gave it to ran a car service in Brooklyn.”

Mr. Frizell, a current owner, said that the new ownership’s goal is to hire a staff that “looks like Brooklyn.”

That staff will enter their workplace beneath a landmark Neo-Grec wooden portico and proceed through a recently restored, circa-1919 revolving door of mahogany and brass.

Inside, the evocative Gay Nineties dining room — one of only two restaurant interiors in the city that have been declared landmarks — remains intact, including three walls of elegant arched mirrors with cherry-wood trim. The walls are further decorated with 13 patterns of Lincrusta, a richly embossed wallcovering; 12 have been identified from an 1890 catalog. The original gas-electric lamps of swirling brass also survive, although they were controversially adapted by a previous occupant for electrical power only.

The new menu follows the oyster and chop house’s tradition of high-quality ingredients, simply prepared. But one Gage & Tollner dish that will not be offered is green turtle soup. Though that specialty appears on menus dating to 1895, its omission will be just fine with Mr. Simmons, the former co-owner, who recalled its method of preparation without pleasure.

“In the ’60s there was a delivery entrance to the basement from the sidewalk, and one day this thing, maybe five feet in diameter, came down the chute,” Mr. Simmons said. “It was a live turtle, upside down, and they put it on a table. Its head was in its shell, and it was someone’s job to stand there very quietly and wait for it to stick its head up. One big swing with the knife, and that was the demise of the turtle.”

History has its place, but not every suspended tradition deserves reviving.

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